How did I get it: The library. (If your library doesn’t have it and you want a copy for yourself or for your library’s shelves, a new paperback edition was just released on January 2 from Eraserhead Press. The Kindle and Nook releases aren’t available as of yet, but there is an audio book.)
Why did I read it: I’ve been meaning to read some books by Brian Keene for awhile. This is my first attempt and will count towards my Horror/Thriller Reading Challenge for 2012. I also really want to see the movie based on Ghoul at some point soon.
How I would rate it: 2 out of 5 stars.
June 1984. Timmy Graco is looking forward to summer vacation, taking it easy and hanging out with his buddies. Instead his summer will be filled with terror and a life-and-death battle against a nightmarish creature that few will believe even exists. Timmy learns that the person who’s been unearthing fresh graves in the cemetery isn’t a person at all. It’s a thing. And it’s after Timmy and his friends. If Timmy hopes to live to see September, he’ll have to escape the…GHOUL.
Review: Despite being a tale as old as time, the story of boyhood friendship and scary monsters is one that I greatly enjoy. Initially, I really appreciated Keene’s writing style and his character development as well as comic book nostalgia that Ghoul provided. Timmy and his friends were really well-done and very likable. As someone who grew up collecting back issues of various superhero, Star Wars, and Elfquest comics, I loved Timmy’s connection to them. I especially enjoyed the part of the book where he observes that Spider-man probably cracks so many jokes because he’s so afraid of the foes he has to go up against.
Unfortunately, I quickly learned that no good anything would be allowed to go unpunished since the adults in Ghoul were there to basically destory everything the characters loved (and that I loved as a reader) in really, really painful ways. It was an effective strategy to be sure, but then the book’s on-going theme was that the only monsters in life are adults. A theme that I honestly hope to never ever read about again for three reasons.
Reason #1: Themes like this one need to be gently and subtly applied. This rarely happens, and it definitely did not happen with Ghoul. I will give Keene some credit for not making the mistake of having Timmy, Barry, or Doug shout out “Don’t you see! Adults are the ghouls!” But Timmy had thoughts along those lines, and I really don’t like being treated like I’m too thick to pick up on anything on my own during the course of reading a book.
Reason #2: The theme of adults are the real monsters that leave scars on the heart and soul of their children isn’t strictly a horrific one so much as it is tragic beyond words. Which isn’t to say that Mr. Keene is in bad company for using said theme because he definitely isn’t, but the theme just isn’t one that I find to be even slightly scary. It is such a cliché and so incredibly unpleasant that it just makes me miserable, really.
Even when I was sickened by the extremely unpleasant lengths that the book was willing to go to in order to force the reader to agree to the novel’s premise, I mostly felt sad for the characters because Timmy’s home town was a pretty bleak, hopeless place where life is just one long death sentence. And just in case the reader planned on walking away from the book thinking that anything would ever get better for anyone, the epilogue reveals that not only are adults the worst creatures on Earth, but everyone becomes one and will become identical to their parents unless they die around the age of 12. Again, not horrific. Just plain depressing as heck.
Reason #3: The theme of adults being worse than your worst nightmares takes away from the most obvious plot premise provided by a Horror novel like Ghoul, which is that there is an actual honest-to-goodness monster in the book.
Obviously Ghoul is not alone in disappointing me in such a fundamental way, I expect/want/need/desperately desire monster books to be about monsters doing monsterly things on the page and not behind the scenes. I don’t enjoy zombie or vampire stories where the monsters are only there to serve as a metaphor for the human condition. I also don’t enjoy monsters being around to make the human characters look infinitely worse by comparision. Or for the monster to hardly be in a book, particularly when the book has promised me that there will be a monster somewhere in the book.
I mean, honestly, did the theme of adults are the pits have to come at the monster’s expense? I’m not saying I need the ghoul to be the most multi-faceted antagonist of all time. I’m sure it’s hard for even a supernatural monster to compete with an abusive, overbearing husband/father and drunk, child-molesting mother, but it is even harder when the ghoul is constantly playing second fiddle to everyone else in the book including his victims.
Not only was the ghoul’s role limited in terms of the scope of the book, but very little was explained about him in comparision to the wealth of toxic information available on everyone’s parents. As a result, the ghoul just read as a bit silly and out of place. I definitely appreciated the few moments of insight into the ghoul just as I liked that the ghoul garnered Timmy’s sympathy, but I wish he could have earned mine instead.
Instead, like the embodied version of an Indian Burial Ground, the ghoul was just a given that’s there and causing problems because that’s what ghouls do until someone finds a comic book that explains how to defeat them. There were violent deaths with the ghoul as the culprit, of course, but he also had awkward but perfectly articulate conversations with his human henchman about being hungry and demanding more women. He even sends the henchman a letter with instructions at one point. Eventually, and because I’m also watching Dark Shadows at the moment, all I could picture was a very tattered-looking, cannibalistic version of Barnabas Collins. And that isn’t particularly scary either.
In conclusion, not for me. If you’re a fan of King’s oeuvre, you’ll probably enjoy this book way more than I did. If you always find yourself cursing the heavens throughout but particularly at the end of a Stephen King book, don’t bother picking this one up. Personally, I am going back to watching more Dark Shadows. Then I’m going to attempt Dark Hollow since a lot of reviews for Ghoul suggest that I ought to have read that book instead.