Reviewed by Johnny Butane
Written by Brian Keene
Published by Leisure Books
Over his relatively short career being a professional writer, Keene’s been called "the new Stephen King" more frequently than most of today’s authors, and for good reason. Though he’s a bit more graphic than the master has been of late, Kenne’s got the same sense of his characters as King does, even though it’s not quite as refined yet.
So it’s no surprise that Keene has finally gotten around to coming up with his first coming-of-age novel, Ghoul, the first book Keene’s set exclusively in both the world of kids (specifically 12 year olds) and in the time frame in which he himself grew up, the 80’s, two things King’s always been fond of doing. Using the "write what you know" adage works greatly in Keene’s favor this time around, as Ghoul is one of his strongest tales to date.
Our story is about Timmy Graco, growing up in the suburbs of Baltimore in the 1980’s with his best friends, Barry and Doug. It’s June of 1984 and when we first meet Timmy he couldn’t be happier; summer vacation is finally here, the time when he and his friends can do whatever they want without worrying about school. Keene does a great job of recreating that sense of summer as an endless time when school was so far away it wasn’t even worth thinking about and the only responsibilities you had were to have as much fun as possible.
What starts off as possibly the best summer of their lives turns tragic very quickly; first Timmy’s beloved grandfather dies, then a local girl disappears, Barry’s abusive caretaker father forbids them from entering the local graveyard, where the boys have a secret underground fort, after dark; and Doug’s home life gets worse and worse thanks to his overly affectionate mother (probably one of the creepiest characters Keene's come up with); all the while there are sinkholes that keep appearing in the graveyard, tombstones are falling down and Barry’s dad is acquiring a lot of expensive new trinkets that the boys know he can’t possibly afford on a caretaker’s salary.
Though it takes a while to fit together, the bad home lives of Doug and Barry, mixed with the adventurous nature of Timmy, eventually tie in to the book’s titular creature; a monster that has been awakened after years of being trapped in the local cemetery. He is a ghoul, shunned by his Maker and allowed to only eat the flesh of the decomposing dead. He’s enlisted the help of Barry’s dad to also attain a new bride so his race can retake the earth, all Barry’s dad has to do is find him the women with which to mate and keep his mouth shut and he is rewarded with the riches of the dead the ghoul eats. Not a bad deal if you're all right with offering up some local women to the creature, which at first the old man has no problems with.
One of the issues I had with the book is that even though the monster is introduced to us very early on in the tale, we don’t really see a lot him for the rest. For me it was distracting to a degree, but thinking about it now it almost works better that way because the monster remains a hidden threat, always lurking in the background so you never know when he's going to show up. Though we knew what was going on in the graveyard at night and that Timmy would be best to stop investigating it before he got too far, since the ghoul doesn’t show himself throughout he serves as a background evil, which you know is going to come along at the worst possible time for the boys to complicate their lives even further.
It doesn’t help matters that this summer that was supposed to be so great for our young heroes turns so sour so quickly; indeed at one point the ghoul is the least terrifying monster in the story. Though we're given a glimpse into the head of Barry's father, which is both confused and full of madness, there's really nothing human about him or the way he treats his son. Doug's mother, as previously stated, is one of the most disturbing characters Keene has come up with, actual monsters be damned. The fact that Doug doesn't know how to get away from her or how to end it all, and that he truly loves his mother and wants her to be happy, makes it that much worse.
What will resonate most with readers is how alive and real these characters feel as the book progresses, especially Timmy at the heart of the story. He’s a big geek like most of us were at that age, with an overwhelming love of comic books and their creators; he’s discovered his first crush, living through what should be the best time of his life. But over the course of just a few weeks in summer it all comes crashing down and he is forced to grow up way to fast, faced with the death of people he loves and a monster that should not exist. Keene’s grasp at conveying the pure human emotion this kid feels is well-honed; indeed this feels like his most realized character since Terminal.
Though there isn’t a lot of monster-generated horror in Ghoul, what these kids go through with the adults in their lives is far more horrific than any monster could be. Indeed, despite it's horrific nature the monster only wants to have a family again so he's not so alone, a scenario that allows the creature a bit of humanization, even if it is out for blood. Though it does suffer form some pacing issues midway through the book, they’re resolved quickly and don’t drag the story down much at all.
At the end of Leisure’s print of Ghoul is a preview of Keene's next novel, Dead Sea, which sees Keene returning yet again to a zombie apocalypse. I have to admit I was a bit disappointed when I got through it, as I think he’s a much stronger author when dealing on a small scale, but we’ll have to wait for the book’s final release to see just how different it is.
Be sure to get your hands on Ghoul as soon as you can; it’s a great story with three-dimensional characters and horrific situations that you won’t likely forget anytime soon!
4 out of 5
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