This is another Valancourt reissue Christmas gift to me and has a pull quote from Stephen King on the cover, which made me interested to read it. Poppy Z. Brite says on the back of the book that this is “surely one of the most terrifying novels ever written,” so I was ready to be scared. However, I didn’t honestly find it that scary and I felt like the racial politics distracted me from fully feeling immersed in the text.
The Elementals is a Southern Gothic horror novel that follows the McCray and Savage families as they go to their remote vacation houses after the death of the Savage matriarch. Their vacation estate, Beldame, is made up of three Victorian houses on the Gulf beach miles away from anyone. The third house is abandoned and is being consumed by a dune. As they spend a hot, lazy summer lying around, the granddaughter, India, starts to realize that there is something in the third house and its intentions are not good.
This book is very readable; the characters are all interesting and feel very distinct, and the descriptions of the houses and nature are transportive. You can tell that McDowell was from the South and had a great eye for detail and humor. Beldame and the two families really felt alive. If I didn’t read and engage with so much horror, I might have been more scared but as it was I think it takes a lot to scare me and this was creepy but never terrifying. There were two scenes that I did find effective. I do feel like McDowell was trying to make some sort of point about racism, but the Magical Negro trope is so played out for me that having Odessa (the black servant) have mystical powers took me out of the narrative. It seemed like the book expected me to sympathize with the White point of view characters, but I found myself wanting a book from Odessa’s perspective. It made me think a lot about the power of assumptions and how easy it is to reinforce stereotypes even when you’re trying to undermine them. If you like Southern Gothic, this is a very solid choice, but just be prepared to grapple with racial tropes.