The matriarch of the wealthy Savage family, Mariam Savage, has died. Her son Dauphin and his wife Leigh, along with the family's lifelong African-American servant Odessa and Leigh's mother "Big" Barbara McCray, brother Luker, and niece India, decide to spend some weeks after the funeral at Beldame, a vacation spot on the Gulf Coast owned jointly for generations by the Savage and McCray families that consists of three identical Victorian houses on an isolated beach that becomes an island at high tide.
Of the houses, one is owned by the McCrays, one by the Savages, and the third...well, that's something of a mystery. The third house has been seemingly unoccupied for as long as anyone remembers. Not only that, but it's slowly being swallowed up by a massive sand dune. Something does live there, though. And that something has long been involved in the tragic history of the Savage family, and it's not done with them yet...
The Elementals contains examples of the following tropes:
- The Alcoholic: Big Barbara. In fact, one of the reasons for the joint family vacation at Beldame was a desperate attempt to isolate Big Barbara from any booze supplies.
- Ambiguously Gay: Luker. He and India are keeping some kind of secret from his family, and it's implied he has feelings for Dauphin that go beyond just a lifelong friendship. There is also a line about him going to a bar to find someone to lead astray (gender specifically not specified).
- Arc Words: Savage mothers eat their children up.
- Asshole Victim: Lawton McCray is emotionally abusive, cheats on Big Barbara, and plans to burn down the Beldame houses so he can sell the land for oil. Therefore it's not really that sad when he unwisely goes into the third house and gets murdered.
- Bittersweet Ending: All of the family except Dauphin, Lawton, and Odessa make it out of Beldame alive and what's left of the houses will be destroyed to make way for oil excavation, but India knows that, even with Beldame gone, whatever curse is afflicting the Savage family will continue with Leigh's twin children.
- Eldritch Abomination: The Elementals are not ghosts, or elemental spirits, or demons. They're malicious and they like to toy with people for fun, but that's just about all it's possible for humans to really understand about them. Odessa explains that it's absolutely imperative to never even start to think you've got a handle on them, even a little bit, because that will only lead you into more danger.
- Evil Matriarch: The reader never meets her, but there's no doubt that Mariam Savage counted in her day.
- Just Eat Gilligan: Selling Beldame, or even just not going back in the third act, would probably fix many if not all of the problems the characters are having. Justified, however, as there seems to be some supernatural effect that makes everyone stop taking the Elementals seriously once they leave. There's also the fact that the Elementals actually attack fairly rarely—so, dead kids and murder attempts aside, more than half the time you can have a perfectly nice vacation there.
- Magical Negro: Odessa is focused on helping the white characters, and has some natural mystical psychic powers that allow her to dispense some important exposition, and passes on her power to India via having India eat her eyes after the Elementals murder her, which is what finally allows India to destroy the third house and help the survivors get out. Actually invoked; at one point she snaps that she doesn't understand why the Savages and McCrays think she understands everything that's going on, and she admits most of her rituals for keeping the Elementals at bay were ineffective all along.
- Shapeshifting: What the Elementals do and are. In particular, they like to take the forms of the dead or of extremely odd looking people. They can still be spotted because they have black eyes with white pupils and, when they try to talk, sand pours out of their mouths. It's not even clear how many of them there are or even if it's really a them or an it.
- Southern Gothic: Like most of Michael McDowell's prose work, this certainly qualifies. Besides taking place in Alabama and involving the supernatural and family secrets, there is the element of decay. Although Beldame is still kept up (with the exception of the third house), it's clear that along with the third house being overtaken by a dune the very island the houses rest on is slowly giving way to erosion.
- The Unfavorite: There's no doubt in Dauphin's mind that his mother preferred his late brother Darnley and sister Mary-Scot over him.