Horror Rewind #8 – ‘The Ghoul’ by Mark Ronson (1980)

The Ghoul by Mark Ronson

No, not that Mark Ronson. Not Uptown Funk Mark Ronson.

The Ghoul is an odd one. A bit like The Pet, it’s a book clearly marketed by the publishers as a pulp horror but which turns out upon reading to be a much more thoughtful, intelligently-written piece of fiction than the “pulp” label generally implies.

That said it tries – not entirely successfully – to marry two different genres: archaeological mystery + international espionage.

Set in the “pocket kingdom” of Abu Sabbah near the Red Sea, The Ghoul’s main narrative focus is on the archaeological dig being undertaken in the fabled Valley of the Jinns. The dig is led – notably, for 1980 – by a young woman, Laura Sword. As she is set to excavate the legendary tomb of Horemheb she is aided by her father, the excellently-named Max Sword; Adam McAndrew (who in another writer’s hands might have been the lead), a slightly wet, bankrupt maker of TV adverts; and the disarmingly down-to-earth monarch of Abu Sabbah, King Hamid. Abu Sabbah is wonderfully realised by Ronson, whose research is worn lightly. It has the feel of a book written by someone who has spent time in the Middle East.

Running tangentially to this is the story of Israeli spy Moshe Leor, who travels from Jerusalem to Abu Sabbah on a mission whose details are left conveniently vague. The mission brings him (twice) into contact with the glamorous femme fatale Leilah. Leor’s “stranger in a strange land” Jew-in-Arabic-kingdom tale is handled delicately; Leor is no bigot, nor does the narrative voice resort to cheap racial cliches.

The third strand, and (somewhat mercifully) the least-explored is that of a small band of “Hippies”, nearing the end of a drug-fuelled world tour in search of spiritual fulfilment. This is led by the highly unpleasant five-and-dime Messiah, Sonny, who talks in a phonetically-rendered Southern U.S. drawl (“fug yew”). His companions/disciples (after the grisly murder of the only other male, Jorgen) are conveniently young and female. Holed up in a cave near the valley of the Jinn, they await “The Experience”, a mystical climax which they believe Horembeh’s tomb will unleash.

But wait, I hear you cry! Where’s the bloody Ghoul?

Well of course, in disturbing the tomb, something equally legendary is set free. I suspect Mark Ronson had seen Jaws and the recent Alien and thought – vis-à-vis monsters – “less is more”. True, but sometimes less is also just…less. I enjoyed The Ghoul, but I wanted more Ghoul. Les Edwards’s cover illuminates what characters only ever glimpse in their dimly-illuminated final moments, deep in the caverns of Horembeh’s tomb.

The ghoul has a hunger for human flesh. Unfortunately, it also has a penchant for rape, and that’s where The Ghoul becomes problematic. Not just the beast’s “blunt burning horn” but the fact that the ostensibly sympathetic Moshe “inadvertently” rapes Leilah so as not to blow their cover during a police raid. You don’t “inadvertently” rape someone. And despite Leilah having called it rape herself, this acts (pace Straw Dogs) as a form of arousal so that they then embark on some genuine consensual love-making. Hmm. Sonny also rapes one of his harem as part of the sacrifice which will initiate The Experience. The outnumbered non-rape sex-scenes contain corkers like this: “[Moshe] felt himself dropping like some dizzy comet through a universe of whirling constellations” which suggests Moshe had found some of Sonny’s acid tabs.

There are also a few period oddities. For instance, academic historian Max Sword is apparently recognisable from his appearance in an advert for typewriters. You read that correctly.

The three storylines collide toward the end but other than a late reveal of Leilah’s true identity there isn’t any interweaving of them, and at times they seem to belong to different books that just happen to be set in the same (brilliantly-evoked) country. Ultimately the novel’s architecture, unfortunately, is not quite the match of the elaborately-constructed tomb which it describes. These issues aside, The Ghoul is otherwise a highly-readable, atmospheric mystery that almost delivers.

But who is or was this particular Mark Ronson? I had no idea, and neither does most of the internet, but according to http://realmsofnight.com/2016/12/18/mark-ronson/ the name was “a pseudonym for the New Zealand-born British author Marc Alexander” under whose real name his works are apparently now available as e-books.

What else was happening in horror in 1980? Well, Kubrick’s The Shining of course. But also The Fog, Friday the 13th and Cannibal Holocaust. In fiction? King’s Firestarter and Herbert’s The Dark for starters, but also Peter Straub’s unjustly-forgotten proto-dark fantasy Shadowland. A storming start to what was to be the bumper decade for the genre.

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