Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Fangoria #19, 1982 - Cold Moon Over Babylon

*Used with permission of Stanley Wiater

-Some spoilers ahead-

Fangoria #19, 1982 - Review of Cold Moon Over Babylon by Stanley Wiater

One of the many enjoyable qualities of Michael McDowell's The Elementals is the obvious good time the author had in writing it. Before the first chapter is at an end, and we are told of the very odd funeral customs of the Savage family in Alabama, the reader knows he is in good--if perversely twisted--hands with McDowell.

Appropriately enough, the novel begins at a funeral, where we meet the central characters of Dauphin Savage, his wife Leigh, and their elderly black maid, Odessa. Related to them by marriage are Big Barbara McCray, her recently divorced son Lukar, and his thirteen year old daughter India. India, however, was not raised along the coast of Mobile, but in the heart of New York City, where she naturally learned not to be afraid of anything she could see or hear. Of course, what she encounters at Beldame with the five others is like nothing she ever imagined could exist either in New York or in her worst nightmares.

And what's wrong with Beldame? It's unclear at first. Beldame is a tiny piece of land off the coast, cut off by water at high tide, where the Savages and McCrays have been coming to spend their summer vacations for the past thirty years. They stay in two of the identically built Victorian-style houses which comprise the only structures in existence on Beldame. It's not too long before India learns why no one ever goes into the Third House, a house which is slowly but steadily being buried by the wind-blown sand. . . . Of course, India isn't afraid like her cowardly relatives, and had no hesitation to sneak over to the Third House and peer inside a window not yet covered by the sand dunes. She even waves at the little black girl she observes playing inside the house. Only the little black girl tries to break out once she sees India, and when her mouth opens to speak, only a stream of sand pours out. And when India tells this to Odessa, she learns that the black maid had a little girl who supposedly drowned here at Beldame. Even though the body was never recovered, no one was willing to go into the Third House to see if she might have gotten trapped somehow in there.

As The Washington Post has already declared, "McDowell has a flair for the gruesome." He continues to display it in The Elementals (his fourth novel: the first three have also been well received critically); he not only knows how to create startling images of horror, but the novel could stand on its own because of the equally interesting characters, who, to be blunt, are very odd creatures themselves. In other words, McDowell already has the reader on the edge of his seat by describing the tensions and pressures his characters are going through just by being forced together in various unpleasant situations, such as Big Barbara's drinking problem, or the possibility that her husband intends to sell Beldame to a company looking for oil off the coast. McDowell then brings in, seemingly out of left field, the icy touch of the supernatural--and effectively makes the reader's skin crawl.

This reviewer, for example, counted no less than five times when he experienced that feeling which the French call frisson, which is a more concise way of describing how a particular line or image in a horror story/movie gives you goose bumps up and down your arms. It's difficult to think of a better compliment to bestow.

McDowell knows exactly what he is doing, from the first page to the last. When the being inhabiting the Third House (the Elementals--the spirits) begin to move into the first two houses, the reader is swept along as McDowell refuses to allow us to outguess him as to which characters will survive to the end. For a while, we're lulled into thinking that these Elementals are really without any material substance, that they can scare us--but not physically harm us. They're just elements of sand and wind. That is, until the lights go out and something grabs India's ankle and almost tears her foot off just as she is about to escape from the Third House.

McDowell is fast becoming a writer to be respected, and is clearly destined to achieve greater glories as a horror novelist. At a talk at a recent convention McDowell mentioned how, when he writes horror, "I can only take it out of myself. I can only take the sort of things which scare me, and they're sort of formless, but I try to transfer that . . . so when I run out of nightmares, I don't know what I'm going to do! In The Elementals, I use some of my worst nightmares. I wrote that late at night--which was a real mistake. I wrote between twelve and two every night, and I would have to stop at two o'clock because I was so scared to be in the room alone, and come downstairs and go to bed. But I think eventually I'll run out of nightmares. I wake up in the middle of them and write them down, intensely grateful that something else has come my way!"

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