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Lovecraft in a Hot Climate:
Michael McDowell’s The Elementals

3,340 words

Michael McDowell
The Elementals
New York: Avon Books, 1981
Richmond, Va.: Valancourt, 2014; with an Introduction by Michael Rowe

“I would be perfectly willing if a publisher came up to me and said, ‘I need a novel about underwater Nazi cheerleaders and it has to be 309 pages long and I need fourteen chapters and a prologue.’” – Michael McDowell

Once again Valancourt has rescued a worthy author from inexplicable obscurity,[1] and anyone interested in modern, post-Lovecraftian horror really should check out this fairly recent author who gives Lovecraft a run for his money.

If you’re like me, the name Michael McDowell is vaguely familiar. Is he that the guy that dropped the bridge on Capt. Kirk? That guy who sang in the Doobie Brothers? Or other singer, from Spinal Tap, who’s now Saul Goodman’s ueber-douchebag brother?

Turns out, he’s a big name in the “1980s paperback horror boom,” which is another one of those cultural phenoms that I seem to have just simply… missed. I probably thought it was just a bunch of Stephen King wannabes, and indeed McDowell’s publicity usually mentions King calling him “the finest writer of paperback originals in America today.”

But I’ll try not to hold that against him, if Valancourt thinks he’s worth republishing.

Making my – and perhaps your —  ignorance even more puzzling is that before his AIDS-related death in 1999 he had also turned out screenplays for some well-known films, including Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1987), and collaborations on The Nightmare Before Christmas (with Burton, 1993) and Thinner (with Tom Holland, 1996), as well as  the novelization of the movie Clue in 1985. Indeed, Rowe in his Introduction points out that

An assiduous follower of McDowell’s later work might think they had seen the bones of India McCray lying beneath the portrait of Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice, a slightly jaded Upper West Side sophisticate wielding a Nikon as a shield between her own vulnerability and the often frightening and confusing world of adults around her.

But let’s get back to the novel before us; here’s Wikipedia’s précis:

The Savage and McCray families seek out their Victorian summer houses in remote Beldame, Alabama, for what they hope will be a relaxing vacation on the Gulf Coast. But a third house, abandoned and slowly being consumed by sand, holds a horror that has plagued them for generations, and young India McCray has awakened it.

Well, there’s India again! So let’s start talking about the characters and we’ll get to her in a bit. There’s no explanation for her odd name, but then ‘most all of the characters seem to have been named by someone (not McDowell, of course) who’s read too much Faulkner or Erskine Caldwell: Dauphin, Luker, Big Barbara, Odessa (the black family retainer, of course, to whom we shall return).

No explanation is given for India’s name,[2] but here one can assume it signals the kind of 70s proto-SWPL parents[3] that would name their kid China Miéville.[4] Indeed, her father, Luker, ran off from Alabama to New York City (not unlike the author) with some Jezebel who almost immediately revealed herself to be a nutcase (sort of as if Ignatius Reilley married Myrna Minkoff) but still lives around the corner. Occasional flashbacks show that they live on the Upper West Side, including a trip to Zabar’s that, this being a horror novel, ends badly.

Besides acquiring a foul mouth along the way,[5] we are meant to understand that he is raising India as a very “modern” child, and they have a very “modern” relationship, which includes coffee, Scotch[6] and – it would appear, on at least two occasions – casually appearing before her in the altogether. One can leave it up to the reader whether McDowell intends this to be horrifying or not.[7]

Much as a horror story set in Seinfeld Country would have its appeal, this angle, like Big Barbara’s battle with alcohol and failing marriage to a fertilizer magnate [8] bent on a political career, is really just a way of fleshing out the characters and developing a few domestic, non-horror subplots.

All these elements,[9] really extraneous to the horror, are likely necessary if an idea is to be sustained for the length of even a short novel and still retain the reader’s interest.[10] Lovecraft was famously unconcerned with such technique, especially the drawing of character,[11] due, he said, to his disinterest humans and their affairs.[12]

One more character before we move on: Odessa, of course, is the Magic Negro of the tale; Scatman Cruthers to India’s Danny.[13]

“They’s some houses that’s got something inside ’em, and some houses that don’t. Don’t you know that?”

“But it’s not ghosts,” she said, “they’s no such things. It’s just the spirit in the house, trying to make us believe in ghosts. The spirit wants you to think that the dead come back, and you can talk to ’em and they can tell you where money’s buried and like that—” “Why?” demanded India. “Why would the spirit do something like that?” “Spirits want to fool you. Some spirits. ’Cause they’s bad—they’s just bad, that’s all.”

McDowell somewhat subverts this trope, however, perhaps inadvertently (being from Alabama, he may have been too familiar with the real article). She may have some intuitive awareness of what’s going on, but she’s not a bright bulb at all; until the horror draws them together, sassy New Yorker India rather despises her.

See, among India’s wacky traits is that despite her SWPL upbringing[14] she needs to have what Carl Schmitt would call an enemy:

At Beldame, the enemy had been Odessa, not because Odessa had done anything bad to her—or even because India instinctively disliked her—but only because it was inconvenient to dislike any of the others: Luker, Big Barbara, Leigh, or Dauphin.

During all the long afternoon, Odessa sat and worked at the jigsaw. It infuriated India that the black woman’s proficiency was never augmented by her long hours at the puzzle; she remained abysmally slow at it always.

McDowell also provides her with a common-law husband, the long-gone, no-good Johnny Red. But basically, Odessa really isn’t going to be much help:

All this business about Elementals and “eat my eyes”—whatever that meant—was a lot of confused hocus-pocus [thinks India]. Odessa couldn’t help it. What with segregation and an illiberal state legislature, she had never had the educational benefits that India herself had enjoyed; it was even possible, she considered with a shudder, that Odessa had not finished high school.

And Odessa agrees:

“I don’t know why y’all all the time coming to me with questions when I don’t know much more than any of y’all. I’m tired of trying to think ’em out and I’m not no good at it anyway.”

But it hardly matters, because ultimately the horror is, in Lovecraftian fashion, unutterable and un-understandable – nor does it want to be understood.

“Spirits want to fool you. Some spirits. ’Cause they’s bad—they’s just bad, that’s all.”

But even that is still too anthropomorphic. As India eventually realizes,

The Elementals were simply presences, amorphous and unsubstantial.

An Amazon reviewer puts it well:

Odessa is correct about the ghosts, but there is something definitely malicious at Beldame. Under the beautiful rays of sunshine with the gorgeous, appealing ocean nearby there is something very wrong. Something wrong about the elements. Something wrong about nature itself: the wind, the weather, the water, and especially the sand and how all of them behave as if they are being controlled by very unnatural “presences” in the “third house” which have powers not just over the elements but prey upon people and their perceptions and imaginations.

“Beautiful rays of sunshine,” indeed. As Rowe points out in his Introduction:

The heat and the light in The Elementals is as much of a character in the novel as any member of the Savage or McCray families, as much of a character, indeed, as any of those three terribly-occupied houses at Beldame.

The combination of light, heat — and boredom – explains a lot about Beldame, and perhaps the South generally:

At the end of her first week there, India understood how Luker and Dauphin and Odessa could contemplate returning to the place, when they were evidently very much afraid of the third house and whatever inhabited it. Days at Beldame were so exquisitely dull and stuffy, so brightly illumined and so hot to the touch, that the quivers and fretwork of emotion were quite burned away. 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—but Beldame proved too much for her. She was bewitched, as surely as Merlin by Nimue.

[On a previous vacation] it was the unending monotonous barren hills of southwestern Scotland that most intrigued India and her father. There was grandeur in a vista that was wholly and even aggressively uninteresting.[15]  So it was with Beldame: nothing happened there, nothing could happen there. Days were entirely characterized by the weather: it was a hot day, or it was a day that wasn’t so very hot; it rained, or it looked as if it might rain; or it had rained yesterday but would probably be only hot today. India had quickly lost the flow of the days of the week: time divided itself into brief arbitrary runs of hot days and rainy days. The words yesterday and tomorrow might have been excised from their vocabulary: for yesterday had entertained nothing that was worth today’s speech, and tomorrow could promise no change from today. Transfixed, as out of a train window, India stared at life at Beldame.

Rowe is also right to call attention to how innovative this is:

I am struck, today as in 1981, by that sunstruck Gulf shore brightness. Gothic horror fiction traditionally has depended on darkness and cold.

Indeed. One thinks of Lovecraft, for example, whose personal fear of cold weather (he once fainted on the streets of Providence when hit by a cool breeze coming ‘round the corner) led to two of his greatest works, At the Mountains of Madness [16]and “Cool Air” (which adds his hatred of India’s New York City).

Film, for some reason, seems to lent itself to this inversion; writing about Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me, Deadly (1955), Max Allen Collins notes that “For a movie shot in under three weeks, the mastery of the camera-work and art direction is dazzling,”[17] and he’s certainly right; we’ve written before about its almost hallucinatory brightness, a hyper-realism that seems to take place post some nuclear apocalypse (and thus tied in with the famous ending), which is exactly what takes this film noir into Lovecraft territory .[18]

More recently, Michael Mann’s Manhunter, his 1986 adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, uses the bright sunlight of the same Gulf coast locations for the more conventional contrast of family and goodness (the closing shot, held over the credits, is an image of the triumph of the Aryan family worthy of Leni Riefenstahl) with the Tooth Fairy’s solitary night-time stalkings; yet the film achieves genius in the (sole) scene devoted to Hannibal Lector, set in the blindingly lit whiteness of his asylum, in stark contrast to Jonathan Demme’s über-conventional Grand Guinol meets Dracula setting for The Silence of the Lambs.[19]

More thematically, McDowell’s Elementals suggest the kind of cosmic horror Lovecraft promoted and (in his own opinion, certainly) best achieved in “The Color Out of Space.”

“That’s the thing about Elementals. You don’t know what they are or what they’re like. They don’t have any real shape. You don’t even know if they have real bodies or not. They showed up on your film, but you didn’t see ’em when you took the pictures.”

“They’s this and they’s that, and this and that’s not ever gone be what you expecting.”

That quote brings up another place where McDowell actually improves on Lovecraft: the rendering of regional dialect. It’s not only Lovecraft’s problem; there seems to be a long tradition in American fiction of trying to render dialect with a minuteness that, already to readers in Lovecraft’s time, seems to become simply unreadable.

It seems a mistake, for example, to convey important background information through a local yokel who sounds like this:

“Hey, yew, why dun’t ye say somethin’? Haow’d ye like to be livin’ in a taown like this, with everything a-rottin’ an’ a-dyin’, an’ boarded-up monsters crawlin’ an’ bleatin’ an’ barkin’ an’ hoppin’ araoun’ black cellars an’ attics every way ye turn? Hey? Haow’d ye like to hear the haowlin’ night arter night from the churches an’ Order o’ Dagon Hall, an’ know what’s doin’ part o’ the haowlin’?Haow’d ye like to hear what comes from that awful reef every May-Eve an’ Hallowmass? Hey? Think the old man’s crazy, eh? Wal, Sir, let me tell ye that ain’t the wust!”[20] (The Shadow over Innsmouth).

McDowell, by contrast, achieves just the right suggestion of regional sound by a technique an Amazon review describes thus:

Suggesting through the judicious use of a few words like “gone” for “going” and “cain’t” for “can’t” the entire honeyed treacle-drenched cadence of Southern speech without having to actually wade through it on every page.

Apart from this, McDowell writes an appropriately plain prose that never gets in the way of the horror, yet is capable of simple little moments here and there that reward the careful reader:

Those attenuated afternoons were an exquisite time, warm but not hot, with golden, lambent light, lasting always a little longer than they imagined it would, slipping suddenly into night.

Note the repeated, sometimes internal, alliterations, and the suggestion of an actual poetic line with light/night. And here, the alliteration even hands us its visiting card:

Odessa was the last; she looked once to the Savage house and attended to its sibilant destruction.

There are also subtle details that establish internal links, without hitting the reader over the head, such as the way Dauphin’s dream of breaking out of the mausoleum by kicking the door open links back to India’s breaking the third house’s window with her foot.

All in all, this is another most excellent rediscovery provided by Valancourt; I look forward to reading more of this author, and you should too.

Notes

[1] I immediately turned to Joshi’s The Modern Weird Tale (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2001) and found no mention at all, even among the authors he hates (e.g. Stephen King) or apologizes for not talking about.

[2] It occurs to me that both India and Odessa are named after places, which could explain their being drawn together and their intuitive understanding of the geographical horror.

[3] Such as the artsy-craftsy Prof. Welch in Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, where Jim Dixon dreams of how he might “tie Welch up in his chair and beat him about the head and shoulders with a bottle until he disclosed why, without being French himself, he’d given his sons French names,” namely the “bearded pacifist painting Bertrand” and the “effeminate writing Michel.”

[4] The little prick, whose very name indicates that his (her?) parents were stone cold revolutionaries who must have offed a lot of pigs when not listening to Jefferson Airplane albums, behind the Lovecraft Award dust-up; see my “Reflections on the H. P. Lovecraft Award,” here.

[5] “’I’d like to rip his balls off and staple ’em to the roof of his mouth,’ said Luker. The others had all grown so used to his vulgarity of speech they didn’t even flinch.”  “You’re a fool to listen to that man,” said Luker. “He’d lick your balls if it put another dollar in his pocket. I hope you told him to fuck off.”

[6] “He had another drink, and had prepared India one as well. It was weaker than his own, but not much.” “Now here, I want you to take a long swallow of this drink—it’s decent scotch and I know you like decent scotch—”

[7] It’s Auntie Mame, with the genders reversed and moved across town; see my “Anti-Mame: Communist Camp Classic Unmasked,” here. Or, he’s a sort of impudent NYC version of Atticus Finch; see my review “To Cut Up a Mockingbird: Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman,” here.

[8] Recalling Hal Warren, the El Paso fertilizer salesman and the auteur of Manos, The Hands of Fate; see my review of the restored edition here.

[9] There’s also an evil oil company seeking to tear down Beldame and set up drilling facilities in the Gulf, recalling the BP oil disaster and South Park’s Batman/Lovecraftian mashup, “Mysterion Rises.”

[10] Poe, of course, preferred the short story or tale for this reason; Lovecraft eventually settled on what Henry James called “the dear, the blessed nouvelle.”

[11] Sam Francis, a fan, says: “Throughout his tales character development is weak: indeed, there are precious few characters at all. The protagonists of his stories are usually thinly disguised doppelgangers of Lovecraft himself, scholarly bachelors of good family but dim prospects who encounter events and beings that defy natural explanation and which usually end in the horrible, dreadful, frightening, gruesome, mind-chilling death or dismemberment of the protagonist or other characters, or at least in their insanity. There are virtually no female characters, little story development (Lovecraft’s plot devices often consist of diaries, letters, and various documents from which a narrative is reconstructed), less dialogue, and a good deal of heavy message between the lines as to how the cosmos is not really as nice or neat as mere mortals like to imagine.” See his “At the Heart of Darkness,” here.

[12] Joshi, op. cit., gets all Lovecraft on Stephen King for “humanizing” his stories by filling them chock-a-block with humdrum details of dull, boring ordinary people and their stupid problems; “Who aside from other nice, wholesome, middle-class people could possibly care what happens to [these characters}?” So, I guess that wouldn’t be Joshi, then.

[13] From The Shining, of course; add in the big house, and one recalls the Simpson’s episode based on, not at all The Shining, but “the shinning.”

[14] “India had always thought of herself as politically liberal—as Luker was—and with that liberalism came a discomfort with servants. Other appurtenances of the rich didn’t bother her, and she had often benefited from the largesse of some of Luker’s friends: weekends in large houses, rides in limousines and private planes, Beluga and Dom Perignon, private screenings and empty beaches—and had enjoyed them all without guilt. But servants walked and talked and had feelings and yet weren’t equal, and India thought that to deal with them was a practical impossibility. She asked nothing of Odessa, and would have prepared all her own food rather than be waited on by the black woman—except that Odessa insisted that she have the kitchen entirely to herself. India could not use the kitchen at the McCray house, for there the gas and the refrigerator had not even been turned on.”

[15] We’ve meditated on the overlooked value of boredom in “Of Apes, Essence and the Afterlife,” here.

[16] The Modern Library’s so-called “definitive edition” contains an introduction by … China Miéville; see At the Mountains of Madness: The Definitive Edition. Introduction by China Miéville. (New York: The Modern Library; 2005)

[17] Max Allan Collins and James L. Traylor: Mickey Spillane on Screen: A Complete Study of the Television and Film Adaptations (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2012)

[18] See “Mike Hammer, Occult Dick: Kiss Me Deadly as Lovecraftian Tale,” here and reprinted in The Eldritch Evola … & Others (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014).

[19] Mann’s brilliant use of light and pastels throughout the film was lambasted at the time (and still) as merely imposing his already familiar Miami Vice palette on the material; similarly, his use of (then-)contemporary music by Klaus Schultze and Shriekback. For more on both films, see my “Essential Films . . . & Others,” here.

[20] A similar bout of cracker incoherence leads Tom Servo to remark ““When you get near a sentence let me know.” MST3k Episode 406, Attack of the Giant Leeches. Mel Brooks probably killed off this trope with Gabby Johnson’s “genuine frontier gibberish” in Blazing Saddles.

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3 Comments

  1. Durtal
    Posted August 25, 2017 at 5:12 am | Permalink

    The description of the Elementals and the emphasis on their essential unknowability recalls the unnamed entities in Algernon Blackwood’s nouvelle ‘The Willows’, considered by many (including Lovecraft) to be the finest supernatural horror tale ever written. I highly recommend it.

    • James J OMeara
      Posted August 26, 2017 at 7:00 am | Permalink

      I had forgotten about that, but you’re right, on both count.

  2. Matthias
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Great review, you got swag. I might never read the book, but enjoyed the learned rambling all the same.

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