Friday, June 13, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Book: THE ELEMENTALS

When the lovely and talented Patti Abbott asked me to contribute a book to her Friday's Forgotten Books series, there was no way I was gonna say no. For one, I think the series is a phenomenal idea. For two, I've read Patti's stuff, so I know that beneath her pleasant exterior lies the heart and mind of a hardened criminal, and crossing her didn't strike me as a good idea. But finally, and most importantly, I couldn't say no because I had in mind the perfect book, particularly for Friday the 13th: Michael McDowell's The Elementals.

Stephen King once called Michael McDowell "the finest writer of paperback originals in America today." Though his is not a household name, many are familiar with McDowell's work in movies, as he penned both Beetle Juice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. McDowell's work spans a multitude of genres, but it's in the Southern Gothic tradition that he really shines.

At its root, The Elementals is a simple tale. Two families, linked by marriage, spend a summer vacationing on an isolated jetty on the coast of Alabama known as Beldame. Beldame is really nothing more than three old Victorian homes on a strip of sand that, at high tide, is cut off entirely from the mainland. The McCrays occupy one house, and the Savages another. The third house, long vacant, is overrun by sand dunes, and it soon becomes clear that sand is not all that waits inside.

Like I said, the story is simple enough. But what makes The Elementals more than the sum of its parts is its pace, its tone, its vibe. Simply put, The Elementals is one of the most terrifying books I've ever read. McDowell ratchets up the fear by increments, using the oppressive Southern heat and the families' isolation from the outside world to his best advantage and never giving the reader a chance to breathe. In this era of wiz-bang thrillers, it's wild to experience a story that takes its time, and is no less riveting because of it.

Sadly, The Elementals is long out-of-print, but believe me when I tell you, this is one worth hunting for. Although if I were you, I'd read it with all the lights on, and for God's sake, don't bring it to the beach.