Creatures In the Sand

Author: Michael McDowell

After a gruesome funeral with a ritualistic twist, the Savage family returns to their ancestral summer home to recover and help the family matriarch dry out and avoid a divorce. The Savage’s hereditary summer land, Beldame, is a tongue of barren sand that is cut off by water at certain parts of the day while it sizzles in the stifling heat, isolated and dangerous. At Beldame there are three old houses, each identical. The family stays in two of the houses. The other house is abandoned and is being steadily swallowed by a dune. At Beldame time stills, the heat covers everything like a wet blanket, and the indolence of rest is a Band-Aid against the demands of life. Yet despite the seeming peace, there has always been something elementally savage here, something waiting and watching, and this summer, as the family lodges together again, the evil stirs and rouses itself for a final showdown.

The Elementals is a promising book. There is something intrinsically fascinating about horror in seemingly safe spaces. Sun soaked beaches are hardly the stuff of nightmares, yet with a few deft imaginings and some isolation, McDowell paints sand as something alien, insidious and everywhere, something that can disguise and swallow. It’s a powerful portrait, and the heat brings no comfort, only a stultifying promise of inescapable doom. With fever dreams shaped out of sand and abandoned houses peopled with atrocities, The Elementals promises a southern gothic charm.

Unfortunately while the descriptions and the premise are pure horror dynamite, the actual story is altogether stale, with moments of powerful imagery supplanted by a meandering plot and an unnecessarily large cast. The Savage family is haunted by curses from cannibalistic mothers to premature burials. Everything dark and brutal lives and breaths in this family . . . yet none of it is seemingly connected. These weird legends expend themselves in between pages of drunken, sarcastic family members who spend their days backstabbing and napping. In the midst of all this hinting and lazy bickering, an old black servant becomes the stereotypical voodoo queen, the not so subtle racism stabbing at the reader page after page. By the end, we could care less who is sucked under the sand or even why. We just want these indolent, spoiled, unlikable family members to be devoured and the true villains of the piece, the-whatever-it-is that animates the shifting sands, to win.

Even this isn’t without its troubles though because whatever lives out there on those islands remains unexplained. The elemental evil, or whatever it is, has always been there and seems to only strike when the plot necessitates it. That leaves us to ask why now – why this sudden escalation after decades of quiet? And how do these sand beings relate to the entire creepy Savage mothers theme and the premature burial stuff? We never find out what the entities are, what drives them, and what their intention is. It’s ultimately so much nonsense, interspersed with some truly chilling descriptions and the hint of an unfinished but brilliant idea. It could have been legendary, or at least enjoyable, but as it is neither the characters nor the monsters inspired enjoyment, much less entertainment.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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