Good lord. There is no one, NO ONE who writes Southern small-town nastiness like Michael McDowell. McDowell was a novelist and screenwriter whom you may or may not have heard of depending on how much into horror you are. You may have read The Elementals (that’s the last book I read that kept me up until 4 o’clock in the morning!) or Gilded Needles or his Blackwater series. Or if those don’t ring a bell, you may be familiar with the screenplay he wrote for a little movie called Beetlejuice. He was in the midst of writing the screenplay for Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas when he died in 1999. Horror fans, I know you already know this, but this is for the people who are hearing it for the first time. Oh yeah, McDowell, also wrote the novelization of Clue!
From the first 30 or so pages, you would not think this book will go as hard as it does. Absolutely dialogue-free and exquisitely methodical in its descriptiveness, it sets the tone and the atmosphere in the town of Pine Cone, Alabama, a town “proud of its population of two thousand, and it might well be since there is nothing to keep them there except stubborn civic pride, overwhelming inertia, or a perverse moral self-discipline bordering on masochism.”
But, our narrative gleefully divulges, ” it can also be said that there is a great vitality in the mean-spiritedness of the town’s inhabitants. Sometimes they are creatively cruel to one another, and there were seasons in which Pine Cone was an exciting place to live–if you were a spectator and not a victim.”
The events of The Amulet most assuredly take place in such a season.
Sarah Howell finds herself trapped in a nightmare. Her husband, Dean, had a rifle blow up in his face during a training exercise before he shipped out to Vietnam. He’s been horribly disfigured (the extent of which we never even find out, he’s swaddled in bandages like a mummy through the entirety of the book) and more or less left a living corpse. Sarah is forced to care for him, while also enduring the scorn of her hateful mother-in-law, Jo. Jo is truly one of the most awful fictional characters you will ever encounter.
Dean’s friend Larry pays a visit, hoping that he is doing the right thing by stopping in, but is feeling terribly guilty and uncomfortable about being there. Larry was unable to secure a job for Dean at the rifle factory in town, which led to Dean ending up in the army. Jo has a laundry list of grievances about everything in general, but she especially blames the town for her son’s circumstances, and Larry in particular. Jo sends him away with an unusual amulet to take home as a gift for his wife Rachel.
That night Larry and Rachel’s house burns down, with them and their three children inside.
The amulet inexplicably passes from one hand to the next, wreaking havoc and leaving extraordinary carnage in its wake. Not even a quarter of the way through the book, the undertaker is running out of coffins! And no one is safe–while it may have started with someone linked to Dean’s accident, it doesn’t limit itself to locals with those sorts of ties…a poor woman passing through town with her husband gets her throat torn out by her own hogs when the amulet makes its way into her possession.
Sarah begins seeing a connection in the string of bizarre deaths and becomes convinced that somehow, the trinket is involved. As the body count rises, Sarah realizes that she must somehow stop the amulet before it’s too late. But how can she defeat an evil she can’t understand or even hands on–especially when no one believes her?
I literally exclaimed OOOOOOF aloud when I finished this book. GOOD LORD.
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