Book Review: The Elementals by Michael McDowell

I have been looking forward to re-reading this one for a long time, but I knew I had to save it for summer. The first time I read it, I was left with the same impression most everyone is: the oppressive southern heat acting as a character in itself, often times so ominous and powerful that you felt it was working with the titular Elementals to wear our characters down.

Upon re-reading, the first thing I realized was that I didn’t pay enough attention the first time to how beautifully written this novel is. The first time I enjoyed it for its atmosphere and characters, but now I can definitively say that this is my favorite haunted house novel of all time – and anyone who knows me knows that the haunted house is my favorite subgenre in books or film. 

Some readers might find this one a little slow for their liking. I won’t argue that, but I generally love a slower-paced story as long as it utilizes its time properly. The Elementals does: as I said in the beginning, much time is spent with our characters languishing in a heat-induced stupor, but it’s necessary. It feels oppressive, it conveys a sense of almost malignant intelligence and intention in the surreal landscape. 

As an artist, I’m a sucker for a novel that transports you to a place that, original and outlandish as it may be, feels real. Every time I put the book down I felt like I had just been squinting to see in a blinding sun, or that I had to stand up and shake sand out of my clothes. Southern gothic novels do it best; several times throughout the book I thought of the hot summer days spent on the porch in Anne Rivers Siddon’s The House Next Door. 

With the southern gothic comes a cast of unique characters, an interesting family dynamic, and drama that serves as a catalyst for any supernatural terrors to draw on and exacerbate for their own nefarious purposes. Revisiting this book felt a lot like I was seeing the McCrays and the Savages again for another strained family vacation after a year away. Luker and India, though admittedly one of the weirdest father-daughter relationships I’ve ever read, are perhaps my favorites. They’re probably a lot of readers’ favorites, considering they lean more towards being outsiders like the reader than anyone else in the family.

I won’t go so far as to say it’s a perfect novel, but it’s damn near close. And over the years I’ve realized that my favorite novels aren’t usually the ones I think of as perfect. They’re the ones that get me there, do it for me, rub me the right way, however you want to put it. The Elementals does that for me. I think it’s as essential as The Haunting of Hill House, Frankenstein or Dracula. You just need to read it.

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