Well, I've managed to gorge on the early novels of Michael McDowell, side stepping the third one, Gilded Needles, in favor of his fourth, The Elementals. The first two—Amulet and Cold Moon Over Babylon—are fun reads, stomping some Southern Gothic Lite into a little haunted Horror. But The Elementals is the consummation of his work at that time into a true artistic treasure. This is a genuinely scary piece, giving far less room for snickering, or pacing the nasty, macabre scenes with filler inbetween. Blackwater, which most consider his magnum opus(1), is two years away at this point.
With decorum and tears, it opens with a funeral. The dour matriarch, Marian Savage, has died. Only the immediate family is attending this service for "the meanest bitch that ever trod the streets of Mobile"(p.21). In a unique and proprietary ritual, her surviving son, Dauphin Savage, presses a knife blade into her chest. In an earlier history, when the Savages were overseeing the French territory around Alabama, the governor's daughter died in childbirth along with the baby. When the tomb was visited months later, they found they'd buried her alive. She ate the baby before she starved to death. Now, the descendants make sure before hammering shut the coffin.
The current Savage family and their in-laws, the McCray's(2), decide it's a good time for a vacation. They have a compound outside of Mobile, situated on a spit of land between the Gulf and a lagoon called St. Elmo's. It is desolate, uninhabited, and barren except for three identical Victorian houses built by a Savage relative 100 years ago. Beldame—as it is called by the family—even sequesters its guests at high tide. In the '50s, the two families mingled and married and the McCrays got one of the houses. The third house is furnished but never entered or visited. Years of wind and moving sand dunes have buried the front part above the veranda roof as if "it had actually begun to swallow it"(p.60). No one even knows who owns it.
Of the six people staying there, half are conventionalized to type, giving the stage to the other three. They are Luker McCray and his 13-year-old daughter, India McCray, plus the clan's housekeeper, an older black woman named Odessa Red. Luker and India live in Manhattan and are quite urbane, swallowing back their Southern drawls as if they were unsightly birthmarks. They cuss, they walk around naked in front of each other, they take drugs to help cope. Luker is socially progressive and blasphemously outspoken, in opposition to the others', more Southern sensibilities. Most consider him a detriment to his daughter's moral maturity. India proves otherwise; actually to the point where it's hard to believe she's even a teenager. Odessa holds knowledge of the spectral world and other oddities, making her the go-to, good witch.
On this finger of sand surrounded by water, nighttime is darker than dark and the expectancy for an acquaintance of any noise beyond the irregular crashing of Gulf waves makes a "sinister waiting silence"(p.95) engendering uneasy fears(3).There has always been a covert scariness to the place. In the past, strange visions or occurrences were sluiced off as childhood fears. But, after all, both Dauphin's father and brother and Odessa's young daughter supposedly drowned at Beldame. There is a sense of aberration in the sand, as if moving through it was a malignancy almost hypnotic in nature. It is an eerie quagmire which everyone has always avoided and denied, even after continuous intense and hallucinatory dreamings. This bundle of murk is energized when India climbs the encroaching dune, peeks into an upper story window, and sees in the mirrored, ajar door of an chifforobe, a black girl—obviously the long-dead daughter of Odessa, Martha-Ann—rising out of the sand in the room. "Sand welled in the corners of her white-pupiled black eyes. She opened her mouth to laugh, but no sound, only a long ribbon of white dry sand spilled out of it"(p.109). Later, the adults have a hard time dismissing this because India has images on film of the event.(4)
Meanwhile, a sub-plot of chicanery and good, ol' human greed is spun out of the painfully ordinary malfeasances of typically-corrupt politicians. It's a motivational lifting from author McDowell's previous work—Cold Moon Over Babylon—where thar's OIL under 'dem clapboards of Beldame, and, considering how this novel ends, they shoulda sold out to Exxon's bulldozer. But instead, it is used as a torque wrench to ratchet up the tension by fitting a ticking, disaster clock for more fireworks in conclusion.
Back at the spook ranch, there seems to be some disagreement, even after it is beyond question a supernatural encounter. India calls them ghosts—even specifies them as individual dead relatives—but Odessa insists "no ghosts, no such thing as dead people coming back"(5). She says they're spirits and "spirits don't work the way we want 'em to"(p.137). They have no personality, they just mimic the fears and haunts of the observer. Luker agrees, saying "it was the Elementals playing tricks on all of us"(p.197). But India—always the slayer of bullshit—forces a reveal that the label has no basis. In conclusion, the Elementals are "presences"(p.198) with, apparently, a twisted sense of humor—imps, if you will—that "don't have any real shape"(p.199). Lukor adds more generalizations by admitting to their nonsensical ubiquity. He also confesses to a clouded memory every time he leaves Beldame of the Elementals' existence and/or influence. "It's not a real memory any more,"(p.205) he says in denial. "When you're away you forget that you believe in them . . . you forget because nothing happens," he says in answer to India's protest: "Why the hell do you take me to a place like Beldame? Why in the hell [do you] keep going back when you've got these demons—"(p.201).
on exactly what is in
There is a fair amount of subtextual fervor going on beneath the pages. To all cast members, Beldame is a "reward for distress, misfortune, and labor in this world"(p.127). Anotherwords, a safe haven, refreshment, motherly nurturing. But beldame, by definition, means "a malicious and ugly woman, especially an old one; a witch."(6). This cannot be anyone but Marion Savage. The third house—the poisoned one—sits between the other two, separating them, or, at the least, being in position of dominance by its very presence. India keeps insisting there are three ghosts—representing the three family members who've died at Beldame—while Odessa staunchly stands against calling them that. They are Elementals; forces through nature and human that influence those complex relationships; not so much by the individual who is prey to these powers. But then Nails, matriarch Marion's forever-mute parrot, with "its flat black eye reflected light that was not in the room" indicating other-worldly sight, suddenly screams: "Savage mothers eat their children up"(p.45), a precognition directing Dauphin's fate. Or, subtle symbolism for Beldame could be a blanketed criticism for Southern culture, with its gender roles and bigotry, its syrupy charm and back-biting gossip, its manners of honor and respect for gentility. At any rate, there is something at the denotative level that is as invisible as these Elementals.
1) Not to say the 4 other novels and a handful of short stories are not worth reading. I'm just aping popular opinion. Besides, if you really dig deep, you'll find that gay detective series, plus the Beetlejuice screenplay, along with more scattered gems from different venues. He was a multi-talented man and died way too early at 50.
2) Marion Savage (d.) and her husband Bothwell (d.) sired three children: a daughter, Mary-Scot, who is now a Nun, and twin boys, Darnley (d.) and Dauphin, who marries Leigh McCray, daughter of Big Barbara McCray and Lawton McCray. Leigh's brother is Luker McCray and her niece is India McCray. Nothing but real bad things are said about Luker's ex-wife, India's Mom. For that matter, Luker hates his father Lawton almost as much, and for good reason. "I'd like to rip his balls off and staple 'em to the roof of his mouth," says Luker (p.185).