By Stuart Woods
I’ve read a few other Stuart Woods
novels, such as Santa Fe Rules and Dirt , and I really
enjoyed them, so I had high hopes for this one. Especially because Stephen
King, in a marketing blurb on the cover, says that Under the Lake is
“part detective story, part ghost story, part Southern gothic.” I like
ghost stories and the occasional mystery. King was right. Woods’ book is
all that, it just isn’t very good.
HarperPaperbacks, 356 pp, 1987
John Howell is a washed up, suicidal
reporter ghostwriting a book for Lurton Howell, wealthy owner of several
fried chicken fast food restaurants. His wife’s brother, who set him up
for this job, offers his vacation cabin in the Georgia hills, on the
shores of a charming little lake. Howell, a Pulitzer prize reporter, hates
himself for becoming a hack, but he takes the job because he needs the
money. So, leaving his wife, who he admits is a wonderful woman and the
best thing that ever happened to him, he cruises up to the town of
He quickly meets with several of the
Those are the main players. There is also
Leonie Kelly, daughter of Mama Kelly, a local faith healer and psychic.
She plays a small but pivotal role, although I think a superfluous one.
- Eric Sutherland, who created the lake
which created the town. Sutherland owns the town and leases out the
prime lakefront sites. However, he may have drowned a family when
filling the lake, because they wouldn’t sell to him. Or did he?
- Sheriff Bo Scully, a big, friendly
man who is a Sutherland confidant and underling. Some skeletons
definitely hang in his closet.
- Scotty McDonald, a reporter for the Atlanta
Constitution working undercover at Scully’s office. She thinks
he’s a dirty cop. She had no idea who he really is, but she’ll
find out, in the worst possible way.
Anyway, Howell and Scotty quickly become
embroiled in a sinister town secret, dealing with lovely topics like
incest, child-adult sex, and murder.
Ordinarily, I would enjoy such a tale,
especially the ghost part (Howell sees a ghostly young girl in his cabin
and strange visions and lights in the lake). But there are too many flaws.
For example, only a day after Howell and
Scotty join up, they end up in bed, with Scotty initiating the action.
Now, this just doesn’t happen in real life. Furthermore, Howell is still
married, and this, in my mind, immediately makes him a less sympathetic
protagonist. Adultery is still a no-no, after all, hardly an activity in
which the hero should be engaged.
Also, a day after meeting Leonie Kelly,
another sweet young thing, they end up in bed together, and again the
woman comes on to him. This really stretches the credibility test crucial
to all fiction. We later find that Leonie had an ulterior motive: she
wants to be pregnant! Yes, she does indeed become heavy with child, and
Howell is so moved by paternal responsibility that he gives Leonie money
and takes a job in Nairobi (this is at the very end). What a loving father
Another problem is the ghost, and to
explain this I must give away the ending, so if you don’t want to know
the ending, quit reading now. The ghost is Kathleen, a young girl whose
parents refused to sell their land to Sutherland. Howell and Scotty think
that Sutherland murdered them, but it turns out that Kathleen, then only
thirteen years old, killed her parents and older sister because she wanted
to run to California with Bo Scully, then much younger but still in his
twenties. Bo had been engaged to Kathleen’s sister, but her father broke
that off, and then he and Kathleen hooked up and, you guessed it, ended up
in bed. He balks at running off to California with her, though, because he
knows what she’s done, and she threatens to go public with their
relationship, so he kills her. So now Kathleen is back from the grave
seeking vengeance against Bo. Also, Kathleen had just given birth to
Bo’s baby, and Bo gives the tiny girl to an orphanage in Atlanta. Guess
who his daughter is? Scotty! Which is really lovely, since she and Bo also
enjoyed a one-time romp. A little incest, anyone?
The problem is this. Revenge-happy
ghosts are usually sympathetic victims who have been grossly wronged and
ended up dead. Kathleen was a charming little murderer and teen
seductress. Sure she was killed, but you could argue she got what she
deserved. To make her a sympathetic figure worthy of justice is just too
much of a stretch, and it doesn’t work.
Besides all that, though, the book is
well written, and the ghost scenes are spooky. But I’m glad I checked
this out of the library for free.