My first foray in Michael McDowell’s writing and I can say I am impressed. In this slim volume, McDowell manages to create a unique haunted house, fold the reader into the inner workings of a strange pair of rich Southern families, and truly chill and terrify though the weather is boiling and the sun is harshly beating down.
This book isn’t a perfect narrative by any means, but I think I’d consider it one of the great haunted house stories, especially on the conceptual side.
I found McDowell’s colloquial writing to be very inviting and loved the characterization of several of the characters, though they do have unusual names. Luker has great dialogue and is rather humorous, and I felt I instantly understood his relationship with his precocious and worldly young daughter, India. Their rapport is strongly established, and they make quite an interesting pair. Similarly, Big Barbara is quite the character—the opening scene really sets her up as this strong personality who speaks her mind and expects things a certain way.
Beginning with a strange funeral, the plot then progresses slowly toward the haunting, but the investment in the characters is well worth the while. McDowell also sets up the themes of the book very early and layers on them over and over, his knack for throwing in bits of darkness adding an interesting level of contrast and foreboding.
Enter three Victorian houses on a solitary beach, and one of them is being slowly eaten by the encroaching sand—that’s the third house and no one really talks about the third house.
It seems a strange setting for a horror novel (unless, I suppose it’s an aquatic one), but the beach at Beldame becomes chillingly oppressive with its pitch-black nights, complete isolation, strange tides, strange stories from the past, and the ever-present third house that starts to become a character of its own; the black sheep of the family.
Why does everyone ignore the third house, not able to admit their fear of it even as its strange power seems to grow? What really happened to the people who have gone missing at Beldame? What exactly are the Elementals?
I kept imagining this as a movie or show adaptation—it has a very cinematic quality, especially the idea of a house everyone is mysteriously afraid of slowly filling up with sand, and I’d love to see what might be done with it on the screen.
If you are a haunted house fanatic like me, this one is required reading. I’m looking forward to trying some more McDowell too, and I can’t say enough good things about Valancourt Books for bringing this one back out of obscurity.
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.