Michael McDowell’s THE ELEMENTALS

If Tennessee Williams wrote a supernatural horror novel, it would read like THE ELEMENTALS.

This statement isn’t completely true, of course; Michael McDowell was a fiercely unique author who wrote unlike any other. But some of the most fascinating aspects of Tennessee Williams’s plays are exhibited in this novel: atypical/dysfunctional familial relationships; unpleasant truths suppressed or left unspoken; horror-through-acquiescence; moments of shocking violence; manipulative, vicious matriarchs and patriarchs; and a seething, suffocating atmosphere (both thermally and emotionally).

The dialogue, especially, reminds me of Williams. Hearing McDowell’s Luker talk to his mother Big Barbara reminded me powerfully of Brick’s frustrating conversations with Big Daddy in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. In one of Williams’s darkest plays—SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER—there are moments that remind me a great deal of McDowell’s simmering novel.

Brick with Maggie the Cat
Brick with Maggie the Cat

I guess I should mention that I love the plays of Tennessee Williams.

And man, did I love THE ELEMENTALS.

I read Michael McDowell back in my early twenties, and though I enjoyed COLD MOON OVER BABYLON and loved THE AMULET, I suspect I wasn’t seasoned enough yet as a reader to fully grasp what McDowell was doing. In THE ELEMENTALS, he immerses us completely in a world familiar-yet-alien, and in doing so he creates one of the best settings in horror fiction.


The trio of houses, the sifting white sands, the brackish lagoon, and the interminable Gulf comprise a living, breathing, sentient character, one so seductive and malefic that I found myself tightening whenever India (13) and her elder family members arrived there. I feared for them, found myself yearning for them to Just. Get. Out. And trembled with dread each time they ventured nearer the Third House.

Ah, the Third House.

It takes a lot to scare me. I read widely, but I read more horror than anything else. So while a story can still thrill me, move me, or entertain me, it’s a rare tale that can frighten me.


There are scenes involving the Third House that had me checking under the bed for misshapen creatures, that had me triple-checking the locks of our house to make sure something…unnatural didn’t invade. Though you could often criticize these characters for their decisions and shake your head in frustration at their insistence on returning to the Third House, McDowell’s writing is expert enough–and vivid enough–to convince you to dismiss your inner critic and just suffer with the characters as they encounter one horror after another.


Read THE ELEMENTALS. Valancourt Books, one of my favorite publishers, has given McDowell’s work the attention it deserves, and in purchasing this novel, you’ll be supporting both an awesome writer and an outstanding company.

THE ELEMENTALS is without a doubt one of the best horror novels I’ve read this year, a tale that every horror reader should experience, and a story from which every horror writer can learn.

Michael McDowell
Michael McDowell

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