The Elementals, by Michael McDowell

5 Stars

 

The Elementals is a masterpiece of Southern Gothic fiction. It upends the notion that scary things only happen at night and turns the hot Alabama sun into a terrifying and enervating character of its own. By the time the reader finishes The Elementals, he or she will fear a sun that blazes too strongly, sugar that tastes like sand, and dunes that swallow both houses and people.

The book opens in Mobile, where Marian, the matriarch of the Savage family, is being buried in a gruesome funeral ritual that dates back hundreds of years. The grieving Savage and McCray families then retreat to an isolated spit of land called Beldame on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, where they have been vacationing—and dying—for decades.

Three houses sit on the shore at Beldame, but the third is falling apart, as it is slowly being consumed by a sand dune. No ghosts appear in the book, only mysterious, violent creatures who inhabit the third house, where their movements are visible as shadows flitting past the windows during the hottest hours of the day. Their presence can be heard in a bedroom door slamming shut of its own accord and in the sound of sand sifting through a broken window.

Each of the characters has his or her own reasons for fearing the third house, but it is India McCray, the granddaughter from New York, who brings about the final resolution. That resolution is equal to the finest in horror fiction, even as it leaves the reader wondering just who or what the creatures in the third house really are.

 

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The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

3 Stars

The Loney is a literary horror novel that failed to horrify me.  It describes a group of pilgrims travelling to St. Anne’s shrine in coastal England to cure Farther and Mummer Smith’s eldest son, Hanny, of mutism.

On the positive side, the sense of place and atmosphere was engrossing. I loved the setting of the book in what the pilgrims discover is an old Tuberculosis sanitarium. Also, the tension between the simplistic Catholic faith of the Smith family and the naturalistic superstitions of the locals was powerful. In the end, both traditions seemed cruel, more designed to torture Hanny than to cure him.

My big problem with The Loney is that, in the climactic scene, Hurley shies away from giving the reader a close view of the ritual that cured Hanny. Instead, Hanny’s brother, Tonto, steps out into the hallway, so that he cannot witness the violence of the final cure. This takes away from the real horror of the book.

Ultimately, I thought Hurley’s second book, Devil’s Day, was a better book.