Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Elementals by Michael McDowell

For me, the start of a new reading year is always exciting. Setting goals, starting challenges, closing out the prior year with my list of faves... And I did all three at the dawn of 2018: I submitted a top ten to Bookbitch.com and posted my expanded "Favorite Reads of 2017" here on the blog. I set my Goodreads goal for 2018 (150 with the expectation [hope] that I'll have to set that higher as the year goes by - I squeaked by with my 180 goal of 2017, so we'll see), and I chose a few challenges for the year as well. This year, I'm sticking to the Litsy Reading Challenge bingo card and Book Riot's Read Harder challenge. (I'm also doing BookBar's Read-o-Lution challenge, but it's only a few weeks long.)

Considering I only finished one challenge in full last year (a novella challenge), this year is starting off promisingly - I've already managed to finish a few challenge goals!

You may recall seeing mention of The Elementals on my Ghost Stories for Christmas post. Sadly, I didn't manage to actually pack the book when we left for the holidays, so I wasn't actually reading it on Christmas Eve as planned. (It's ok, though, I did have something.) I'd then intended this to be my final read of 2017, but I was sick and that didn't exactly happen either. But I did manage to make it my first read of 2018! And it satisfies a square on the Litsy Reading Challenge!

Michael McDowell, if you don't know, was a fairly prolific author whose work was mostly released in the 80s. He's best known, though, as the screenwriter behind Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. And I wouldn't be surprised if this is the first time you're hearing of him, sadly.

His work has been largely out of print for a while, but thanks to Valancourt Books and Felony & Mayhem, quite a few of his titles have been reissued in recent years. And thank goodness for that! Valancourt in particular has been reissuing McDowell's old southern gothic/horror titles, including The Elementals.

Marian Savage has died and in honor of her death, her son Dauphin, his wife, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, niece, and maid are all headed to the family beach homes for the summer. 

The trio of buildings, built by the Savage family decades ago, have barely changed over the years. Well, with one major exception. At one time, two of the homes were sold. One was eventually purchased by Dauphin's father-in-law, but no one is sure who owns the third. No one ever visits it. And now, all these years later, in spite of looking virtually the same as the other two, the sand has begun to reclaim it.

The homes have a strange history. Dauphin's recently departed mother died there, for one. But it's more than that. Strange sightings, strange noises, and strange occurrences plague the place. Dauphin's own brother disappeared there one summer. But in spite of that, the group is determined to have a good time. 

It seems the houses have different plans, though. 

I loved the timelessness of this story. It was originally released in 1981 but, with the exception of the lack of cell phones, it could really take place just as easily now as then. The houses are cut off from the outside world and, essentially, from time itself. Which is exactly what gives it that timeless feel.

The Elementals isn't a loud or flashy horror read. Instead, it's something of a slow burn that builds in tension thanks to the atmosphere and characters within the story. The sultry heat of summer seeps from the pages as does the grainy itch of sand.

I was going to say that India and Odessa are the two most interesting characters in the story. And it's true that they're the two characters who experience most of the happenings at the beach homes. But in retrospect, they're simply the two I was most drawn to. In all honesty, each of the characters has a little something about them in turn.

India is a precocious teen who lives alone with her single father in New York City. The product of an unhappy marriage, India is perfectly happy with her home life. It would be expected that she'd be bored out of her mind at the beach, but that definitely isn't the case. Her relationship with Odessa, the Savage family maid, is rocky at first - India understandably isn't comfortable with the idea of a maid and it comes across as surliness towards the woman. But when she starts seeing things in the third home and realizes Odessa may have answers, that relationship quickly changes.

I will say that I didn't find The Elementals a completely satisfying read. I wanted more from it. And not just answers about the entities that haunt Beldame. There was something about The Elementals that felt more like a chapter out of a larger story. Like there should have been more to the tale of the Savages and the McCray's than this one summer. It was fun, but I wanted more from it - or maybe just more to it.

I should point out that I have actually read McDowell before. In 2006, Berkley released Candles Burning, which was completed by none other than Tabitha King herself. You can find my review of that one over in the Bookbitch archives.

1 comment:

Dianna said...

I know about the movies you mentioned, but hadn't heard of this author. So glad to have this book on my radar. Thanks to you, I have it on hold at the library.