by Michael McDowell
On a spit of land cut off by the Gulf, three Victorian summer houses stand against the encroaching sand. Two of the houses at Beldame are still used. The third house, filling with sand, is empty...except for the vicious horror which is shaping nightmares from the nothingness that hangs in the dank, fetid air.
The McCrays and Savages, two fine Mobile families allied by marriage, have been coming to Beldame for years. This summer, with a terrible funeral behind them and a messy divorce coming up, even Luker McCray and little India down from New York are looking forward to being alone at Beldame.
But they won't be alone. For something there, something they don't like to think about, is thinking about them...and about all the ways to make them die.
I came across this title in a list of "haunted house" books, I believe, and the blurb immediately caught my eye. The novel is set in the coastal counties of Alabama, which is where I was born and have lived all my life. I thought it might be interesting to read something about such familiar ground-- particularly since the author was also born in Alabama (albeit not in the panhandle) and lived here until at least the end of high school.
It was interesting, but though the names of several local towns and cities made an appearance-- and though McDowell was right about the sugar-white sand of our beaches (and the oppressive heat and humidity of our summers)-- in the end, it didn't feel any more like "home" than any of the other books I've ever read. (It feels much more like "going home" to read about L.M. Montgomery's Maritime Canada.) I didn't recognize anyone I know in the character types. (These people are mostly bizarre and unlike anyone I've ever met.) The way they speak-- generic "Southern", as far as I can tell, but maybe I'm deaf to any local idiosyncrasies. And even more disappointingly, the book felt far from flattering to my home. (On the other hand, we're growing fast enough as it is. Maybe we don't need good press!)
But of course all this isn't of interest to most people. To most readers, this is just another setting, even though this setting is essentially a character in its own right. They take the setting at face value and don't bother comparing it with the real thing. And after all, there is no "real thing". Beldame is purely fictional. (Or is it?! ;o))
The beginning of the novel is promising, but I thought it dragged a little in the middle. The personal lives of the characters got bring, to tell the truth-- particularly since I didn't feel like I really knew them or cared much about them (beyond just the basic "decent human" courtesy of not wanting to see them killed). I could never understand why they kept putting themselves in danger, but that's something we usually have to accept in horror. Aside from a few examples where there is no escape, characters in horror novels often do lack the sense that God gave geese.
The pace picks up toward the end and finishes on a high note, though there are things (...most things...) that are never fully explained. (I'll go into more of that later on.) However, that too is typical of the horror I've read.
On the positive side, the novel had a foreboding atmosphere and some truly creepy moments. Even when reading in broad daylight, I still felt a little uncomfortable, a few times, alone in a quiet house. It was all too easy to imagine something standing behind me as I read... I was never completely sure what might happen next (aside from a few things that you just know will happen, sooner or later), and it held my interest enough to tide me over the slower parts of the book.
I'll probably try more of the author's novels, based on the strengths of this one.
Nitpicking Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--The local place-names are here in spades. Mobile, Pensacola, Belforest, Fairhope, Daphne, Point Clear, Bay Minette, Loxley, Robertsdale, Foley, Gulf Shores, Gasque. They're all there. (Foley has a population of about 3,000, in this book. At the time of the 2010 census, it was up to 14,600.)
--The descriptions of the area are not exactly flattering-- all except for Beldame itself, which for some reason is just the bestest place ever. (Well, except for the evil spirits that can kill you at any time.)
"Their way lay south through the interior of Baldwin County, down a narrow unshaded secondary road that was bordered by shallow ditches filled with grass and some ugly yellow flower. Beyond the low ramshackle fences of post or wire lay vast fields of leguminous crops that hugged the ground and seemed very cheap and dusty and to have been planted for some reason other than an ultimate ingestion by either man or cattle. The sky was washed out almost to whiteness, and wispy clouds hovered timorously at the horizon on every side, but hadn't the courage to hang directly above. Now and then they passed some sort of house, and whether that house was five or a hundred years old, its front porch sagged, its sides had been blistered by the sun, its chimney leaned precariously. Dilapidation was consistent, as was the apparent absence of all life."...Well, gee. That sounds like a virtual paradise! ;o) Look, I live here. I wasn't born yet, the year in which this book is set, but I feel safe saying that even then it wasn't that depressing. In parts? Sure, every place has rundown properties. But even on the hottest, most miserable day, it's not the Hell on Earth that makes it sound! There are plenty of trees and nicely-kept homes. And how can a crop seem "cheap"? Good grief! Never heard of a "crop snob" before this. (g)
--Even the "regular" beach-- Gulf Shores-- is not treated favorably. The fields are "replaced by a weak-willed stubby forest of diseased pine and scrub oak. In places the undergrowth, thick and brownish and uninteresting, was plotted in white sand." This is pre-Hurricane Frederic, so Gulf Shores is "a vacation community with a couple of hundred houses and a dozen small stores and conveniences. All the buildings were green shingled and gray roofed, and all the screens on all the windows were rusted." "...Gulf Shores was but a tawdry, cramped place." Oh, and Luker is quick to inform India that this area is sometimes known as the "Redneck Riviera". *grumble*
--"India had previously entertained no sympathy for the Southern way of life, with its pervasive friendliness, its offhanded viciousness, its overwhelming lassitude. She had always wanted to punch it into shape, to make it sit up straight and say what it meant..." Yes, I sure do love annoying generalizations about where I live and those of us who live here! Anyone who seriously believes that a whole region (or "way of life") can be whittled down to such a facile description is someone whose opinions I cannot respect. (Yes, I'm a bit overly sensitive about the book's representation of my home. It's just that I haven't read many books set here, before, so it seems more important that the few that exist actually get it right...)
--I think the author exaggerates the heat a little. It's late May when the book starts, and the temperature in Foley is said to be 103 degrees. That would be extremely unlikely-- major record-breaking heat, for that time of year. It does get hotter later in the summer, but still...
--I've been reading reviews, and at least a few have classified The Elementals as "quiet horror". I don't believe I've come across that term before, but it fits. If "quiet horror" is what I think it is, that's my preferred type. Not much for the descriptions of blood and guts.
--The names of most of these characters are rather unusual-- or even downright odd... Big Barbara, Luker, Dauphin, Mary-Scot, India, Odessa, Bothwell, Lawton, Martha-Ann, Lula Pearl, Sonny Joe. Not everyone in the South has a goofy or obscure name (says the woman named Michael).
--Luker and India's father-daughter relationship is very strange. I understand that India's precocious, but there should be limits to what a father and his 13-year-old child discuss and know about one another. The frequent casual cursing is one thing (and one of which I don't approve), but he also gives her alcohol to drink, on a number of occasions. They joke about sex, and at least once Luker walks around naked in front of his daughter. There's also the time he offers to slip her "a down"-- that is, an illegal drug-- if she gets too... bored?... to which she replies that she "gets twisted on downs". Oh! So she's taken them before? Nice family.
--Also: Why does everyone in the McCray family call one another by their first names instead of, say, "Mom", "Dad", and "Grandma"? That doesn't seem a very "Southern" thing to do, in my experience. When I was a child, you never called an adult by his or her given name-- not even if they weren't relatives. (In that case, it was always "Miss/Ms./Mrs. This" or "Mr. That".)
--Of course the evil patriarch-politician who wants to badger/force his family to sell (the exceptionally creepy) Beldame to the Evil Oil Company is conservative. Just-- of course. *sigh/eyeroll combo*
--"...not even Irish babies are that ugly..." ...Wow. Good thing it's still okay to say/write mean things about Europeans. If that had been any other ethnicity, though...
--"It's bad when the dead talk in dreams."
--It felt strange that almost every time Odessa was mentioned, she wasn't just a "woman", she was a "black woman". Why did it need to be specified so often?
--As a gardener, this just made me laugh: "The Alabama foliage was grotesquely lush; trees seemed absolutely weighed down with leaves. The flowers in the gardens-- hydrangeas, lilies, and showy annuals-- drooped with blooms." Grotesquely lush foliage?! Ha! You just can't please some people!
--India's photographs of the Third House. Of course we know there's going to be something creepy on them, though we have to wait a while for the payoff.
--It's always puzzling to me when modern, too-cool-for-religion characters encounter the paranormal. Even when they have to accept that there's something weird going on-- an evil spirit/presence-- they still can't acknowledge even the possibility that they may be wrong about the whole "there's no God" thing... Maybe it's an accurate portrayal of how some people would act, under those circumstances. People can be awfully inconsistent and illogical, after all.
--I know they have to go back to Beldame for the story to even happen... And I guess we can explain it away as a paranormal phenomenon that they forget/deny the eerie things that have happened to them in the past... But it still just doesn't make sense that they keep going back. It's something I can't help commenting on.
--Also, why wouldn't they at least have a little rowboat of some type at Beldame? (Inconvenient for the story, that's why.) I know I'd want some way to get off the island in the case of an emergency. I mean, what if someone became violently ill during high tide?!
--Odessa's poor eyes... Ugh!
--Unless I missed something, there is no connection between the Elementals at Beldame and the odd supernatural/creepy happenings in Mobile. At least, it wasn't spelled out very clearly if a connection does exist. Beldame has all the creepy visions/manifestations-- some of which look like dead members of the families involved, but which we are repeatedly assured are not ghosts. They just take the shape of familiar people, for some reason.
Ok. I can deal with that. The confusion comes with the eerie events at the home in Mobile. First, there's the scary Savage family history and knife ritual. Strictly speaking, that's not supernatural, so we can scratch that off the list. Second, there's India's weird "automatic drawing" episode. Third, Nails (the parrot), who could never be taught to speak, suddenly mimics Luker's comment that "Savage mothers eat their children"-- almost as a warning or threat to Dauphin (who, of course, is finally killed-- and kind of eaten-- by a creature that looks like his dead mother). Fourth, Odessa practices some type of voodoo in an attempt to keep Dauphin's mother safely in her grave, but by the end of the book, the plaque sealing in her coffin (in the family mausoleum) has fallen and broken, giving her an escape route. And finally, there's India's cryptic comment on Leigh and Dauphin's twin boys: "Remember, I can see what Odessa saw. And those babies aren't McCrays-- they're Savages." ...What does that mean? Luker said (way back at the beginning of the book) that the Savage men were sweethearts; it was the Savage women you had to watch out for. Also, Dauphin was a Savage, and he seemed to be Odessa's special pet-- almost a son.
Some of these things don't really fit together, as far as I can tell. Maybe they don't have to, for the story to work, but it would've put the book on another level for me, if they had.
--There are moments of humor scattered throughout the book. I was especially amused by the fact that Lula Pearl has a gold-plated pecan that she wears as brooch. Elegant.
--Hurricane Frederic makes an appearance at the end of the book. This is something that really interested me, since I was born earlier that year and grew up hearing stories about the storm-- about how my family weathered it, about the widespread damage and weeks without electricity, and about the way national coverage of the storm put Gulf Shores on the map and turned our rural county into a tourist destination in the years that followed. It also just happened to be a very convenient way to destroy what was left of Beldame and effectively wipe it from the map. Don't bother looking for Beldame, dear Reader; it's no longer there!