Surviving son Dauphin Savage and his wife Leigh, as well as Leigh's family the McCrays - mother Big Barbara, brother Luker, and his 13-year-old daughter India - try to escape the oppressive weight of mother's memory by spending the summer at Beldame, a bit of land on the Gulf with three Victorian homes on it. The family summers here have been going on for decades. With them is Odessa Red, the Savages' long-employed black servant, who knows virtually every secret there is about the family. Even, perhaps, why two of Beldame's homes are livable, but the third is, astonishingly, slowly being buried beneath an enormous dune of blinding white and sugar-fine beach sand. Indeed, it is piling into the rooms through every crevice and crack; it did not merely encroach upon the house, it had actually begun to swallow it... sand covered the entire front of the house to a line well above the verandah roof.
McDowell smartly pays out his story in even, rational measures, never overplaying it as he gives mild hints through dialogue, image, and circumstance that something unnatural is going on in that third house. This vacation won't be pleasurable: Big Barbara's given up her bourbon-soaked afternoons and worries about her crumbling marriage to local politician Lawton McCray, who wants to buy Beldame from Dauphin for oil drilling. None of the adults will go near the third house; Luker and Dauphin have vague disturbing memories of it from their childhood.
When India, the bright, charmingly foul-mouthed, New York-born young teenager driven to lassitude by the maddening heat during the day and the dead-silent blackness of night, becomes fascinated by the third house, she asks Odessa to help her take pictures of it. Odessa might be uneducated and superstitious but she's loyal to the family, goes along with the girl. Later, India shows her father the photograph:
It was a photo of the verandah showing the handsome curve of the dune that was overtaking the side of the third house. But Luker saw at once the fat gray creature that was huddled behind the low porch railing.... Luker thought that it might be the animated fetus of an elephant. Its white pupil stared out into the camera lens.
"It makes me want to vomit," said India matter-of-factly.
And just what are the "elementals" you ask? Wisely McDowell alludes to them subtly; they are something like three-dimensional hallucinations, living between the very molecules of the air, the land, the sea, the house. They are human weaknesses and wounds and rot and heat and they can recreate themselves as us... imperfectly. The beleaguered family will battle them, but hopelessly, and one will see with their very own eyes the full extent of the power of the elementals.
Overall The Elementals made me think of those morbid 19th century photos of families posing with their dead children, which is quite a tone to recreate. Sadly it's out of print - as are all of McDowell's novels - but I'd love to see The Elementals (inexpensively) reprinted with a more accurate and evocative cover; there are plenty of weird and striking images from which to choose, not the least the house filling with sand; also apparitions with sand spilling out of their mouths; a lone black-and-orange sail on the Gulf horizon; and a monstrous blind baby that can still find its way by using its huge misshapen ears to hear the final tortured breaths of its victims...