Written by: Matthew J. Barbour
Brian Keene has written a lot of books. He is perhaps best well known for his contributions to the zombie subgenre of horror. However, as proven with Castaways and Urban Gothic, Keene has the skill set to tell a variety of stories. His work is reminiscent of- and inspired by- speculative fiction of the late 70s and 80s. In Ghoul, Keene offers up a tale which brings to mind many Stephen King classics. It is his best work to date.
The narrative of Ghoul focuses on three 12 year old boys and their encounter with a monster, the ghoul. However, as with many Stephen King novels, the tale is principally an allegory focusing on the passage from childhood into adulthood. The boys are beginning to come to the realization that monsters do exist. Adults are the real monsters and their transition into becoming adults is unavoidable.
Ghoul is an extremely melancholy tale. Set in a small Pennsylvania town during the 1980s, the boys are beset by monsters on all sides. There is a physically abusive father, a sexually abusive mother, bullies, a mean dog, and, of course, the ghoul. There are very few positive adult figures for the boys to look to. In fact, their two biggest role models die in the opening chapters of the book.
Pop culture references abound and will be particularly vivid for those readers, like myself, raised during the era. The boys are outsiders. They like metal music, collect comics, and watch horror films. It is in many ways Stephen King’s It for the next generation. They are, in all but name, the Loser’s Club.
The place where Ghoul departs from It is in the final outcome. King’s take is that, for the most part, good can triumph over evil. The bonds of friendship are stronger than anything and good people are good people. In Ghoul, this isn’t the case. You can’t avoid growing up. The only thing that lasts forever is scars and monsters.
Unlike some of Keene’s other works, much of the violence here is psychological. This is not splatterpunk, nor is this a monster of the week feature. What the author provides is a very uncomfortable and realistic portrayal of life’s trials and tribulations.
If anything, the story and the writing is too blunt. However, that is the point. The writing is meant to beat you down. It makes you feel sad and hollow. It makes you examine your own life, your choices, and your friends. Is it inevitable that we become what we hate?
Ghoul is among the best horror novels written in the 21st century and is an instant classic. Do not let this one pass you by.