When I was a teenager, I used to read a lot of horror novels, some good, many very bad. In fact, I gave up on reading horror for a number of years due to my frustration. After starting the blog, though, I decided to hunt down and reread those novels which stayed with me through the years. A lot of pretty good books have come and gone, and deserve at least a mention. My first reread was Seth Pfefferle’s Stickman, some time ago; my second is Edward Lee’s Ghouls (1988):
Edward Lee is known as one of the most “hardcore” horror authors writing today, combining graphic sex and violence with supernatural horror. Ghouls is technically not his first novel, but it is his first major novel and is characteristic of his later works though not quite as graphic.
The novel begins in the desolate hills of Saudi Arabia in 1978, as a covert special ops mission goes violently awry. Battle is engaged between the mercenaries and an inhuman force, and a sole survivor escapes with his objective. This survivor is betrayed by his contact, however, and left to die in the wilderness.
We flash forward ten years, to the small town of Tylersville, Maryland. Local cop Kurt Morris is called to the cemetery, where a recently-occupied grave has been found excavated, the coffin forced open — and the body missing. There is no clear motive for the crime, though there are plenty of strange characters to wonder about in town. The cemetery lies on the boundary of Belleau Wood, owned by the reclusive and wealthy Dr. Willard, rumored to be engaged in strange experiments. Officer Morris also has a personal grudge against the local criminal boss and drug dealer, Lenny Stokes, who married Kurt’s childhood sweetheart Vicky and abuses her regularly. No culprit comes to light, however, before people begin to be horribly murdered, first out alone at night, and eventually in their own homes. Officer Morris must seek out and destroy the monsters which are threatening his town, while dealing with his own personal problems.
The portrayal of rural Maryland is so unflattering that I’m tempted to refer to the novel as “the horrors of white trash.” Many, if not most, of the local characters are flawed, corrupt individuals: drunks, drug dealers, spouse abusers, adulterers. They hang out in bars and strip clubs, and make out in pickup trucks in the forest. Lee paints a bleak, though often sympathetic, view of poor rural life.
From my limited experience with Lee’s work, it seems that Maryland serves as a regular setting for his novels, just as Stephen King uses Maine. He lived in Maryland for some time, and his website partially explains why his portrayal of the region is rather negative,
For the next 15 years, he worked as a night watchman at a retirement community and wrote by day. He quit the night watchman job in 1997, moved to Seattle — mainly because he got sick of Maryland PCP-brain-corroded rednecks giving him the finger for driving the speed limit…
Let’s turn to the actual horror of the novel. I don’t think it is much of a spoiler to explain that the monsters of the novel are ghouls! Though there have been many depictions of ghouls in literature, Lee handles them deftly, making them fast, savage animals. I especially like his conceit that the ghouls reflexes are so fast that they can dodge low-velocity bullets.
There are no real surprises in the story: most readers will have figured out the major plot points relatively early, and the story progresses in a more or less straightforward manner. Nevertheless, it is a compelling read, with interesting characters, interesting monsters, and a solid plot.
Lee’s “first” foray into horror was a good one; I’ll be discussing more of his work in later blog posts.