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"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer

Under the Lake

By Stuart Woods
HarperPaperbacks, 356 pp, 1987

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.

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 Sutherland.

He quickly meets with several of the locals, including:

  • 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.
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.

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.

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