The Amulet (1979) by Michael McDowell

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UK paperback (Fontana)

Oh glorious paperbacks! Michael McDowell‘s first paperback original is a triumph despite the odds; what could be a run-of-the-mill story about a cursed object becomes a marvel of storytelling.

Long descriptions of an Alabama town called Pine Cone kick off the story about a revenge gone rampant; local man Dean Howell is about to be sent to Vietnam, when a rifle explodes in his face. A rifle, as it happens, built in a munitions factory in his home town. He returns as a silent, bandaged hulk, to be cared by his wife, Sarah, and jealously guarded by his mother, Jo.

Sarah’s already hard life (working at a deliciously menial job at the munitions factory) is encumbered by the obnoxiously unhelpful Jo, who bears a grudge towards everyone for what happened to his boy. Out of the blue, Jo hands Dean’s friend Larry Coppage a black amulet to give to his wife. Soon after wearing the trinket, Larry’s wife kills him and their children. And from there it’s just a matter of who gets the amulet next, and who the wearer will kill, before dying him or herself in a freak accident.

The kill-and-be-killed cycle is something like a better version of the Final Destination film series; part of the charm is knowing that something gruesome will happen, just not to whom and when and how. The amulet changes hands multiple times and leaves a suspiciously large amount of bodies in its wake (the town of Pine Cone runs out of coffins early on). The smart Sarah figures it out soon enough and begins to hunt for the cursed amulet with her friend, Becca. The homespun scoobies even employ a “wee-gee” board to ask spirits for guidance.

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Current edition (Valancourt Press)

It’s in the descriptions, the redneck characters, the rustic dialogue. McDowell’s sharp narrative triumphs gloriously over the novel’s admittedly generic plot and mass market origins. The horror in the story is horrific, but McDowell occasionally laces it with a smirk; even one pig goes murderously crazy after coming into contact with the supernaturally evil amulet. The ending, where the tables finally turn on Jo, is blissfully gleeful and pitch perfect. In lesser hands The Amulet would’ve been nothing special, just another sequence of cheap thrills. But the high quality of the writing transforms it into something special.

***** (5/5)

Originally published in 1979 by Avon Books. Currently available from Valancourt Books.