Roger Ebert/Criticism/”Ghoul”

Roger Ebert was basically America’s critic for a large chunk of his career. He was an excellent writer, and had a canyon deep understanding of the medium he spent most of his time writing about. He was also a passionate and thoughtful critic: watch this clip of him arguing with Gene Siskel about the film “Crash”– and a couple of things stick out: 1. He really understands the film and what it’s attempting to do– whether or not he likes it is almost immaterial; there’s a quick, intuitive grasp of the film’s text he’s able to articulate with a precision that is enviable. 2. Ebert has a very clear perspective, which he articulated over and over: it’s not so much what a thing is about, it is how it goes about being about that thing that’s important. For him, the success or failure of a film was self contained: did it set out to do the thing that it set out to do? Comparisons, from this perspective, are only of value in that they teach us how something can be done well– the actual text of a thing isn’t up for debate. If you’re making a slasher movie, you should seek to make a successful one. (Though somewhat legendarily, Ebert disliked horror films). 

It’s an interesting perspective: stretched to an extreme (which, it should be clear Ebert never did), it almost gets beyond the question of what’s ‘good’– and good is a quality that’s elusive anyway. One person’s good is another’s who cares. But Ebert was, by and large, a functional critic– that is, his job was attempting to tell you whether or not the product he was was reviewing was worth throwing your money at. He could, and did write about film other ways; but his bread and butter was attempting to answer the question “should I see this?” It’s possible that you might not like a thing, but recognize that it’s well put together, and someone who likes the lead actor, or subject matter might enjoy it. It’s an argument that can easily collapse into relativism: “well, I thought that sucked, but you might like it” isn’t really a compelling critical view.

This blog doesn’t really have a stated goal. I’m not a functional critic at all– a lot of what I write about is older, and doesn’t need a recommendation or lack of one. Melville’s estate isn’t looking for my approval because they’re trying to shift copies of Moby Dick. But I’m not an academic, either– I don’t have to defend my theories about literature to anyone, I’m not being graded, and I’m not expecting someone to hand me a degree. I’m just a person interested in the gooey insides of stories; and I happen to find Ebert’s “did it do the thing it set out to do” perspective a handy one. So, I’d like to take a look at something I read in a few short hours, that was recommended to me as a fast read, and see what, well, what makes it good. 

The book is “Ghoul”, by Brian Keene and it’s something that was recommended to me by Reddit when I asked for a fast moving horror novel. I had been ill, and focusing on something overly complicated or which had a slow start proved to be difficult. They delivered a lot of suggestions, and I picked this one because I’d read some of the author’s work prior. And it worked well. The book cranks into overdrive almost immediately; we get a glorious 80’s style ‘prologue’ in which we’re introduced to two characters who are slaughtered. We get little flashbacks into the character’s lives, which give us a set and setting, and allows the writing to fall into a rhythm. In a scant 14 pages, we get the set and setting, we know the time period, and we get a little bit of gore. It’s effective; it stays in its lane, and you know what you’re in for. It’s brutal, but not fuckin br00tal, and well, it’s fun in the way that horror can be. 

I have a few complaints— Keene is a bit reliant on using specific songs and bands to let you know what time period you’re in; I lived through the 80’s, but I can’t imagine references to Kix are going to make sense to someone who didn’t. Honestly, I don’t remember them at all, and looking them up on wikipedia did not help. I’ll list a few other nits at the end here; I don’t want to frontload this with them. 

The actual plot? There are three boys: Timmy, Doug, and Barry, who lead the sort of idyllic childhood (at least on the surface), that only exists in these sorts of things: they ride bikes, have a secret clubhouse, are involved in a ‘war’ with some other kids, etc. It’s standard coming of age stuff, and they discover, confront, and ultimately defeat the Ghoul of the title. The Ghoul isn’t entirely some faceless killing machine; he speaks, and employs one of the children’s fathers (Barry) as a sort of Renfield, who cleans up after him, and eventually finds him women– the Ghoul believes he is the last of his kind, and wants a family. Interestingly, aside from the prologue, the Ghoul doesn’t really have much of a presence for the first quarter of the novel; we learn a little bit about the children and their families. 

And with the exception of Timmy, their families are awful. Barry’s father, in addition to being an assistant to a corpse eating ghoul, is a wife beating drunk who forces his child to labor at the graveyard. Doug lives with his mother, who is also a drunk, and is a victim of incest. The book’s central point is that while the Ghoul is a fairly awful thing, the people in the book are also capable of being monsters. Once the Ghoul becomes more of a factor in the story, the contrasts between it and the humans are played up. 

The boys hatch a plan to dispatch the Ghoul (his weakness is sunlight), which kind of goes awry, and the Ghoul effectively sacrifices itself trying to retrieve his ‘brides’– the Ghoul, horrifying and horrible as he is, sees value in his “family”. 

It’s not the most complicated of things; the book is just shy of 350 pages, and is designed to zip by. I’d argue what makes it successful are a few things: 

Despite the short length, the characters evolve. It’s a coming of age story, so you expect the characters to, well, come of age– but it’s surprising how often books in this vein don’t deliver on that notion. Some of them cannot escape their fates, which is made clear by the end, but they attempt to. Barry, in particular is shown struggling with who he is versus who he wants to be. It’s compelling and, above all, it rings true. 

The kids behave like actual kids. They aren’t prematurely wise or mature. They go to the authorities when they discover things. There’s a great scene where Timmy tells his father about the Ghoul; something he’s pieced together from both physical evidence in the cemetery and comic books. Timmy’s father does not believe him, and destroys his comic book collection in front of him to punish him. But the fact that Timmy’s the one person with a parent he can trust, and goes to him strikes a realistic note; he learns the hard way that adults don’t always know what’s going on, and the betrayal of that authority genuinely stings. But it also hurts his father, and that is handled well. It’s easy, and it’s far too often the case in stories like these that the kids live in a world without authority or adults; it’s genuinely refreshing to see them interact with parents and police.  

The Ghoul itself is given motivations and purpose outside of being a simple monster. They’re not overly complicated, but they add interest. He rebels, and tries to break the rules his kind live by. 

Is it perfect? No. There’s a dropped thread about “powwow” which is a sort of magic that was originally used to imprison the Ghoul. The local preacher mentions it, there’s talk of a practitioner of it, and it doesn’t really add up to much. 

Timmy figures out things a little too conveniently. In a book which mostly does a fine job of keeping things as realistic as a book about a corpse eating monster can be, it felt a little easy. I might have handled it differently, and it feels like there’s alternatives there. 

I didn’t care much for the epilogue. Timmy becomes a ‘famous comic book writer’ which, just sort of ugh. But the surviving characters have apparently never kept in touch? It feels off somehow.  It does reinforce some of the books themes, however, and it’s not a disaster. 

Would someone who doesn’t normally like horror like it? Hard for me to say; I think it probably has a better shot than some of the stuff I’ve looked at here, but there are some lurid and gory passages that are probably going to put non-fans off. It’s not trying to transcend its genre in any real way, and that’s not a negative. Overall, the minor niggles outweigh the crisp writing, and the believability of the world overall. It does exactly what it sets out to do; and from our original Ebert-esque perspective, that’s a thumbs up. 

It’s been good to just look at a story like this, one which doesn’t spend any time being confusingly symbolic or attempting to offer multilayered insights into man’s place in the cosmos. Unlocking a good story, watching it tick over, and enjoying the ride are valuable things, and it serves us well to remember that. Sometimes, a thing is just good. Something simple done well can serve the soul, or help us feel better after a rotten few weeks with a cold. There’s value in that, and it’s harder to pull off than I think people give it credit for. 

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