Monday, October 12, 2015

THE AMULET by Michael McDowell

Michael McDowell (1950-1999) was one of those great authors of the glossy paperback horror novels that were all over the place in the late 70s and early 80s. Browse your local used-book emporium and you may find a few of his works. Get them.

McDowell's been out of print for a while but is slowly being rediscovered and re-evaluated. His horrors could be schlocky but there was also a wry humor behind them. He was also a screenwriter, having wrote BEETLEJUICE and worked on THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and taught screenwriting. He was praised by Stephen King and other notables.

The Amulet is his first published book. The first few chapters are an overview of its setting, the impoverished town of Pine Cone, AL. We're also introduced early on to Dean Howell, a character who certainly doesn't DO much, but so much of the novel revolves around him. It's 1965, and he's been drafted to serve in Vietnam, and is undergoing basic training at a nearby military base when the gun he's training with explodes in his face and maims him horribly.

He's brought home to his wife, Sarah, and his mother, Jo. Sarah is a much put-upon woman; although she never says so herself, it's more than obvious that her marriage was a mistake. Dean was obviously not mature enough to be a good husband, and was very likely to be physically abusive. His mother is bitter and hateful, and also lazy and arrogant. Sarah herself has a job on the line at the biggest employer in town, a munitions plant....the same plant that made the gun that exploded in Dean's hands.

Dean is brought home, a bandaged, vegetative mess; they have no idea if he'll ever be functional again. Jo is of course obsessive about him, insisting that he communicates with her. Sarah isn't so sure, and her dissatisfaction with her lot becomes more and more evident with each passing page.

A junior executive from the plant, who knew Dean long ago, comes to pay a visit, and as he leaves, Jo presses a strange necklace on him "as a present for the wife." He takes it home and gives it to his wife....whose behavior changes. She serves the family a poisoned dinner, then sets the house on fire and sits calmly in her bedroom as it burns down around her.

And that's just the start.

The amulet manages to go from person to person in the town, seemingly turning up of its own will, and every person who wears it becomes possessed by a violent, homicidal rage at the people who annoy them in small ways. And really, it's a violent, bloody dissection of relations between the sexes, the classes, and the races in small-town Alabama. Nobody is spared.

Sarah suspects something is up, based on Jo's behavior, even resorting to a ouija board with her neighbor. And it all comes to a head when the amulet finally makes it to the munitions plant...

It's good gory fun, to be sure, although I was annoyed by one thing: we never learn where the amulet came from or how Jo got it or was spared its curse. There's hints that Jo was responsible for at least one murder in the past, but that's all it was. I know, it's minor, but I wanted more background.

Still, the sociological undercurrents make this worth reading, and it is very entertainingly written. McDowell's tone when describing the town walks a delicate line between being nostalgic on one side and mocking and contemptuous on the other. That's quite an achievement.

You may be lucky to happen upon an old copy somewhere, but if not, it's available as an ebook from Valancourt, with a new forward by Poppy Z. Brite.

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