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Spotlight on: Ghoul by Brian Keene

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Ghoul by Brian Keene Brian Keene, Ghoul

Brian Keene's debut novel won the Bram Stoker Award for First Novel that year, and set off a storm of publicity announcing him as the Next Big Thing, which has only increased in the intervening years. Unfortunately, I found that novel, The Rising, to be a huge disappointment, and I avoided reading anything else by Keene until the premise for Ghoul proved to be irresistible.

This was partially because it shares its title with Michael Slade's best novel, but it was primarily because of its coming-of-age motif. In horror, the coming-of-age novels are generally the ones that are talked about for years (think of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dan Simmons's Summer of Night, and Robert R. McCammon's Boy's Life as just a few examples), and I did not want to miss out on a potential classic by this highly popular author. But high expectations often lead to huge disappointments, and that was the case with Ghoul.

It is summer 1984. Timmy Graco and his friends Barry and Doug spend most of their time in their new underground bunker, or hanging out in the cemetery where Barry's father is the caretaker. Other than his friends, though, Timmy's grandpa seems to be the only one who understands him. Meanwhile, a being has arisen from underneath the cemetery. He is a ghoul, and he is hungry. Enlisting Barry's father to acquire more food for him leads to a summer that Timmy and his friends will never forget.

The characters are impressively drawn, but Ghoul has many flaws that keep it from being the classic that I expected. First and most importantly is Keene's heavy-handed treatment of the subject matter. A coming-of-age novel should not draw attention to its loss-of-innocence elements. Subtlety is required to let the events speak for themselves, to let the reader do most of the work in effecting the emotional resonance. Instead, Keene gives us far too many self-aware passages like the following: "Part of Timmy was ... afraid of what it might mean for his friend, and for them all. A loss of innocence, a dark passage from boyhood into the beginnings of manhood."

It is vital that we follow along with the characters through their struggles and do not have the important! parts pointed out to us. The thing about the loss of innocence is you're never aware of it as it is happening. It only becomes clear upon later reflection, and certainly not before the fact.

Another problem is that, despite the ghoul's subplot, the title of the book is misleading. This novel isn't really about the ghoul at all: it is about what Keene calls human monsters. And in practically exploitive treatments of sensitive subjects like incest and domestic abuse, Keene beats his readers over the head with his agenda. Along these lines, Ghoul could also have used a pass at a copyeditor's desk. A good portion of my complaints could have been remedied there as passages that were previously effective (if a little overdone) lose all of their impact when they are repeated almost verbatim just a few pages later.

This is unfortunate because otherwise Ghoul has a lot going for it. The twelve-year-old voice feels genuine, and tender scenes of young love are handled skillfully. Timmy is a classic character, and his grandpa makes the desired impression in only a few pages (too bad he manages to be forgotten entirely for the rest of the book!).

The scenes featuring the ghoul are especially entertaining; the ghoul himself even comes across as somewhat sympathetic — particularly when compared to irredeemable characters like Barry's dad and Doug's mom — after all, it is hardly the ghoul's fault that he has developed a taste for freedom and self-preservation. His story is gruesome and suspenseful and imaginative — everything that the best horror is.

I want to applaud Keene for at least grasping at greatness, but Ghoul falls short in too many ways to recommend it. Despite its flaws, however, its fast-paced plot drew me in from page one and kept me reading — almost against my will — all the way to the end. I have to say one thing about Keene's prose: it really moves, even if it sometimes runs off the road.

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