Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Elementals

by Michael McDowell

the constant marginalization of horror really irritates ne. after all this is a genre that includes works by Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Ambrose Bierce, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Joyce Carol Oates, Justin Cronin... so many classic and modern luminaries. it includes modern unknowns like Thomas Ligotti, who can out-write 9 authors out of 10, and dazzling semi-unknowns like Robert Aickman, whose prose can be compared favorably to best of Beattie or Byatt or Boyle. and yet it remains the most ghettoized and often despised of classic genres: many bookstores don't even include horror sections, and when they do, it is wall-to-wall King and Koontz. why is this marginalization constantly the case? is it due to the reactionary themes within an art form (literature) that is often seen as liberal and humanist in outlook? is it due to the frequently lurid and corny paperback covers and the often explicitly graphic content within, or the at-times gibbering, gore-obsessed nature of horror fan dialogue?

perhaps the underlying reason is that the mining and unearthing of anxieties and fears is by its very nature an activity that the world holds at a distinct remove. horror is the Sin-Eater of literature; if every Great Novel is a golden road that leads the reader on journeys of learning and experience, then horror novels are those places outside that path, within the earth beneath it, the dark foundation and all those pathless places, the dirt & the debris & the many-legged crawling things, the areas that live without markers and guideposts yet surround us still. simply put, horror is endemic to the human experience. it deserves respect.

The Elementalsso what does this have to do with The Elementals? a lot, and i suppose not a lot. the novel is slight and sensitive; without its horrors, it would be considered a bent and bizarrely charming thing, an honest and often grotesque depiction of Southern manners and society, a worthy offshoot of Flannery O'Connor. the story of a brave little girl and her perhaps-unusual family, and their misadventures. the author illustrates a certain place with a deft and subtle hand, free of fuss and bustle, full of surprising incident and quirky characterization and odd ambiguity. however the addition of horror moves the novel beyond a gentle but pointed comedy of manners and into something stranger and more threatening, a place where questions go unanswered, attacks go unexplained, characters both just and unjust find themselves at odds with nature and the unnatural, a place where the horrors literally rise from the earth and sand, to tempt and threaten and destroy, and then to return back to the earth, their motives unexplained. this is in some ways the essence of horror: the tableau of humanity, threatened and tormented by things that spurn our paths, that exist beyond our understanding. the horror may come from within or without, but it lives beside us always, an inconstant and alien reminder of how easily our cozy realities may be threatened and transformed, taken off of the paths that we so carefully construct and cherish. yeah, Horror!

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