The Elementals by Michael McDowell

by @SemaphoreRaven

Sand is the worst part of any beach trip. In the words of an expert on the subject, “It’s coarse, and rough, and irritating. And it gets everywhere.” No matter how careful you are, it’s all but guaranteed that you’re going to be encountering it for days after you last see the ocean. You’ll find it ground into your car’s seat cushions. Your next load of laundry will be suspiciously crunchy. When you next pull out your swimsuit for a nice chlorinated swim, the folds and seams will still be lightly encrusted of nature’s glitter. Sand is literally the worst.

And that’s when it isn’t trying to kill you.

Cover of The Elementals; shows the silhouette of a house; the house is on a beach and the sun is in the sky


Michael McDowell (June 1, 1950 – Dec. 2, 1999) was a novelist and screenwriter best known for his Southern Gothic horror, most notably The Amulet, Cold Moon Over Babylon, and the Blackwater series. McDowell was not exclusively a horror writer and in fact wrote in multiple styles and tones, ranging from period novels to over-the-top suspense parodies. As a screenwriter, he was responsible for Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice and collaborated on the Nightmare Before Christmas and Thinner

The Elementals was written in the middle of McDowell’s career and is an excellent example of Southern Gothic literature.


Following the death of the Savage family matriarch, the Savage and McCray families are looking forward to a summer at the Beldame: a summer home consisting of three Victorian houses overlooking the beautiful Alabama Gulf Coast. One house belongs to the Savages, one to the McCrays…and one, abandoned and half-swallowed by the sands, has become home to something malevolent. Something that has been waiting, dormant, since the tragedy that left the house to the elements. But when the youngest McCray accidentally awakens it, it becomes active once more…and thirsts for blood.


From the start, McDowell’s prose and atmosphere had a number of HOWLers hooked. “His prose is so lush that I can almost feel the humidity and picture the trees,” said @MrsReads. McDowell transported readers right into the sweltering Alabama summer and made at least one person want nothing more than to go somewhere shady with a glass of ice cold lemonade. Members were down with the character’s idea of lying around in the heat and doing nothing but reading and napping (minus, y’know, an evil force trying to kill you – though some HOWLers would totally be into that.)

Many member’s favorite part of the book was McDowell’s dysfunctional characters, even if their relationships were so confusing that @MrsReads ended up drawing and posting a family tree to help everyone keep them straight. @MrsReads also had this to say on their dynamics: “I loved that McDowell nailed old southern families that are polite in public white backbiting, hateful, and falling apart in private.” One relationship was so maladjusted that it made a number of people uncomfortable and there was quite a bit of debate over whether or not it was being played for humor. To quote @RyanMarie on the topic, “It’s successfully making me uncomfortable. In a weird way that I wanna keep reading. To me, that’s horror!”

On the subject of horror, the sand-choked halls of the Beldame provided plenty of it. From creepy family sayings to spooky photographs to a scene near the end that made several people rethink ever eating grapes at the beach, McDowell was able to apply the same deft hand he used to paint the scenery to add unsettling touches all over his haunted house story. Sand should not be this menacing.

While many HOWLers were enjoying the atmosphere, characters, and spooks, there were a few common criticisms being passed around. Like every atmosphere-heavy book HOWLS has ever read, there were people who weren’t drawn in and kept waiting for something to happen. “It’s not a bad book, but the term “slow burn” is like a serious understatement here,” said @DunMiff/sys on the pacing. @CheeseDance chimed in that she didn’t think the book was slow, she was just bored. On a more general note, McDowell’s inclusion of the Magical Negro trope made for uncomfortable reading for everyone.

When it came to the end of the book, consensus was that the ending did not completely satisfy due to unanswered questions and loose threads. In the words of @QueensEnglish, speaking for the majority, “First two thirds slapped. Ending was so-so.”


  • This story gets under your skin, just how sand gets into every orifice after a hot day at the beach.

  • Although containing a promising plot with some seriously spooky scenes, this book falls short in its dialogue and loose ends. A fun beach romp regardless!

  • Lush, gorgeous descriptions of a horrible, horrible place full of sand. Genuinely creepy moments that have left me fully invested in sweeping the floors more frequently.
    ~@Probable Hag

  • McDowell really takes his time finding the plot in this one, but he writes characters and dialogue so well that I don’t mind one bit.
    ~@Chris O’Halloran


If you’re into creeping menace, dysfunctional characters, and Southern summers so vivid that reading about them makes you turn up the AC, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of The Elementals. Just try to clean out those bits of sand still lying around your house from the last beach trip first. You don’t need that paranoia in your life.


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