By Edward Levy (Arbor House; 1981)
A surprise: a moldy oldie that never seemed too promising (especially since it was made into a crummy 1982 flick) but which turned out to be one of the finest genre novels I’ve read in some time. It’s graphic, imaginative and wildly unpredictable, not to mention pleasingly eccentric.
THE BEAST WITHIN is a tale of lycanthropy set in the Ozark Plateau region of Arkansas over the course of sixty-some years. Author Edward Levy has fashioned a multi-generational epic from such unlikely material, and done so in fewer than 300 pages. It starts in the 1920s, with Henry Scuggs, an ultra-religious farmer contending with a dissatisfied wife.
Into this tension-filled hothouse comes Connors, a randy bible salesman who heats things up to a full boil. He winds up chained in Henry’s basement for his sins, together with the charred corpse of the farmer’s wife. With starvation looming, Connors devours the corpse and, over the years, becomes an animalistic beast. Henry comes to view his captive as nothing less than the devil in human form, feeling it’s his duty to keep “it” alive in the basement.
This situation lasts until Henry inevitably drops dead and “the creature” gets loose. Of course it isn’t long for this world, but manages to rape a local woman before popping off. The victim, one Carolyn McCleary, is impregnated during the rape, and births a son named Michael.
From there the story focuses on Michael’s rocky upbringing. As a child he’s prone to horrific bestial fits to the point where he has to be imprisoned each night by his parents. Michael learns to control the fits, but they’re not gone by any means, and upon the onset of puberty the madness returns with a vengeance…
All that might sound complicated and/or overconceived, but Edward Levy has found a way to relate this loopy tale in a manner that’s neither over nor underwritten. All the characters are developed with grace and economy, so much so that we’re never left unsatisfied when one leaves the stage and another turns up. The constantly morphing narrative is likewise developed with such skill and conviction that its whiplash changes of tone and scenery–from a perverse domestic drama to an account of horrific confinement to the beast-in-man suspensor promised by the title–never feel in any way jarring.
This is, in short, an eminently readable novel, superbly written and containing a fair amount of nastiness. The story’s underlying supernatural elements are admittedly somewhat ill-defined (apparently the author was inspired by Ozark area folklore, of which I know nothing), but for sheer page-turning readability THE BEAST WITHIN has few equals.