On Michael McDowell’s The Elementals
In a world in which Shirley Jackson never wrote The Haunting of Hill House, this book still exists. It’s not as good as it is, certainly. And it perhaps boasts only one house at Beldame, not three. And perhaps more of the McCrays and Savages survive than McDowell allows to. Still, it exists. The engine of a story about a haunted house is a primal one. The fears it stokes are as old as history. The sins of the past infect the present. And often they open doors that should remain unopened, inviting in something (or, in the case of The Elementals, somethings) far worse.
But the influence of Hill House is undeniable, and the ways in which The Elementals succeeds can be traced directly back to Jackson’s seminal tale. Again we find a ghost that is not a ghost, but an entity that only acts like one, taking in and taking on the aspect of the fears of those it haunts. Again we find a cast of characters whose interpersonal conflicts make up the first two-thirds of the book. The story opens on the funeral of Marian Savage, the matriarch of the Savage clan; it’s her death that brings the remaining members of the McCray and Savage families to Beldame, whose three identical houses they’ve collectively inherited. And yet it’s Luker McCray and his daughter, the thirteen-year-old India, who drive the plot. (It’s no accident, I think, that Luker echoes Hill House’s own heir, Luke Sanderson, and in fact does his Luke-ness one better.) Early on, Luker confesses his fear of Beldame’s third house, now swallowed by an encroaching dune. The only reason he’s returned to this stretch of Alabama coast is to separate his mother, Barbara McCray, from the scotch to which she’s addicted. India, meanwhile, develops a friendship with Odessa, a black housekeeper who works for both families. Over the course of their initial stay in Beldame, she digs into the families’ conjoined pasts, and in doing so awakens the evil that lurks in the third house.
The main reason Hill House possesses such an enduring influence is not its supernatural beats, but the psychological foundation that makes these scenes tick. Reflecting on the novel’s success, Jackson spoke of her interest not in (purportedly) haunted houses in and of themselves, but in the sorts of people who might be drawn to such places. In The Elementals, McDowell inherits this tradition, and succeeds on the same merits. Midway through the book, explaining the eponymous spirits to India, Odessa tells her, “You seeing what they want you to see—you not seeing what’s really there.” The same can be said of McDowell himself, who employs the supernatural as misdirection, focusing our attention on Beldame’s third house instead of on the tensions roiling under each family’s surface. There’s a reason why Odessa—the social and racial outsider of the group—is the only one able to see what’s really going on. And there’s a reason why India, the youngest member of both families, granted perspective beyond her years by her time in New York, is the inheritor of Odessa’s ability. And it’s a testament to the subtlety of McDowell’s writing, and the care in which he draws his characters, that we swallow the unforgettable way in which India does this—sand and blood and all.