Fans of Tim Burton and obscure trivia might recognize Michael McDowell as the writer of the first and much darker draft of Beetlejuice, but clever rats like me and honorary rat Stephen King1 know him as the creator of some of the finest Southern horror ever to see print. His work is often labeled Southern Gothic, but since I've never been able to find two people who can agree on exactly what Gothic horror is, I'm just going to avoid talking about that. His main works3 are all well grounded in the South, though, whether the beasts of a particular nightmare are supernatural forces (as in The Elementals or The Amulet) or just your fellow primates behaving in that uniquely horrible, uniquely human way that you all comfort yourselves by calling "inhuman" (Gilded Needles or Toplin).
The Elementals begins with two very different families, united by friendship and eventually by marriage, coming together for a funeral. The Savages are proper old-school Southern quasi-aristocrats, steeped in tradition and secrets; the McCrays are bold and brash, none more so than matriarch Big Barbara, happily drinking her way through life. Dauphin Savage and Leigh McCray, who united the bloodlines in marriage, are there; even Barbara's son Luker and his precocious daughter India, refugees who fled Alabama for the Manhattan nightlife years ago, have come back to the Gulf Coast to bid their farewells to the late and unlamented Marian Savage.
After the creepy funeral and some horrific talk of Savage family history, the two families retire for a lengthy getaway at Beldame, three ornate Victorian houses built on a little spit of land that sticks out into the Gulf of Mexico. Far from any sign of civilization, its isolation is increased twice a day when high tide swamps the only road and turns Beldame into an island. The Savages and McCrays each traditionally occupy one of the houses on their yearly outings, while the third house... well, no one goes into the third house anymore. It's slowly disappearing under the dunes, the gleaming white sand of the Gulf drifting relentlessly over it. And if there's something in that house, something living in the sand that's poured in through the broken windows? Probably nothing to really worry about. The Savages and McCrays have been coming to Beldame for years, and nothing horrible has ever happened, give or take. Sure, there's been the occasional death or disappearance, but nobody could ever prove the third house had anything to do with it. You don't stay out of the ocean just because there might be a shark or two swimming around somewhere out there, do you? Just use your common sense and everything will be fine.
This is why The Elementals is one of the scariest books I've ever read. You see, all monsters have rules. They may seem invincible at first, but no matter how much of a bad-ass the beastie of the week might be, sooner or later the survivors-so-far are going to huddle around a professor or grimoire or crotchety old-timer and ask, How do we kill it? Learning the monster's rules changes the narrative from human smorgasbord to heroic battle. It turns an unstoppable supernatural killing machine into a problem to be solved, one more trophy over humanity's fireplace. Find the monster's rules, and you're halfway to victory and a sweet freeze-frame high-five.
What happens, though, when you meet a monster who knows you're looking for its rules, a monster that's perfectly happy to let you outrun it, knowing you'll be back some day with a smug spring in your step and no clue just how fast it really is? A ravenous fiend that wants to eat your face is one thing, but a patient fiend that wants to fuck with you? That is no fun, and that's what's waiting in the third house.
One thing McDowell does very well indeed is evoke a strong sense of place. The placid Gulf, the blank white expanses of sand, and above all the third house always looming in the background are vivid and real, a well-lit stage for the horrors to come that nevertheless feels haunted by shadows and the things that hide in them. Draped over it all is the crushing heat of the Gulf Coast summer, a constant presence that practically steams right off the page, affecting anything that anyone does during the day, and even much of the night. The dread that steadily escalates under this suffocating blanket of humid air gives everything a nightmarish quality, like a sneak preview of the knee-deep molasses you're going to have to wade through when the monsters finally run out of patience.
Now that I've convinced you that you need to read this book, how can you get one? Find a copy here! Then read it, and get ready for the next review, because you've got a lot of catching up to do.
2. That particular today was in 1985.
3. He wrote under several different pseudonyms, but all his horror novels were released under his own name.