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The Elementals

The Elementals - Michael McDowell When I think of Gothic fiction, I think of damp castles, in darkness, maybe located in a moor, with storms wailing outside, the howling of the wind and the patter of rain at the windows the lonely accompaniment to the events that take place within those castles. The Elementals is a fine piece of Gothic fiction, but bucks all the trends by setting it in the hot, humid beaches of Alabama in the middle of summer, where the sun removes all shadows.

In the story, three houses stand on a secluded beach on the Gulf of Mexico, called Beldame, all identical, save for one, which is slowly being claimed by a sand dune. Two families, now joined by marriage, own the three houses. When the matriarch of one family dies, the rest of the family decides to return to Beldame, where they intend to spend the summer. India, the youngest of the family, becomes intrigued by the third house despite the fears of her father, her grandmother, and the housekeeper. Ultimately, India leans why they are all afraid of that third house.

At the start of the book, I felt like it would be a bit of a challenge to read it, since "white knuckle" and "fast paced" were not words that came to mind to describe the narrative. The pacing was more deliberate; McDowell took his time in creating the setting and the characters, letting the horror develop from those two components, as any good story should. Once the story was underway, though, I was hooked. It's always easier to write about books I don't like versus books I do, since it's easier to pinpoint what doesn't work versus what does, but I will say that naming the estate Beldame, or "a malicious and ugly woman, especially an old one", was brilliant. I thought this book was fantastic.

I've said before that I still like a good creepy story, even though I feel like I've outgrown horror overall, and The Elementals is an excellent example of a good horror novel. I recently finished Norman Partridge's Dark Harvest, another example of a good horror story, but it's nothing like this. When all the dark, portentous evil of a story like this can exist despite the heat and the sun, it makes it that much more threatening.