THE MAD COOK OF PYMATUNING
By Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
Simon & Schuster. 310 pp. $24
"When I was a child," Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, "I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." Easier said than done, as Christopher Lehmann-Haupt reminds us in The Mad Cook of Pymatuning, a creepy coming-of-age novel that looks back in anguish on the travails of growing up -- and the fact that childish things aren't always put away but taken away.
It's 1952, at least in the mind of narrator Jerry Muller, who must, for reasons that remain vague, look back to confess to the dark events that marked his loss of innocence. Freed from high school and his mother's cramped apartment in the Bronx, Jerry lights out for western Pennsylvania and the annual ritual of summer camp, not knowing that a violent epiphany awaits him.
Camp Seneca is the last stop on a 17-year journey from boyhood to manhood. Jerry is no longer a follower but a leader-in-the-making: a counselor, responsible for a pack of younger boys, including his stepbrother. But his future is clouded by doubt and fear. Torn between divorced and difficult parents, confused by the attentions of his father's new wife, jealous of his stepbrother, indifferent to the prospect of college, Jerry yearns for a time when things were simpler, safer, more easily understood. The fading fantasy of that better place called childhood echoes even in the names of those close to him, all drawn from storybooks and cartoons -- his stepbrother (Peter), his school chum (Oz), the campmaster (Woody) and his wife (Winnie).
And this year, Camp Seneca is different. Gone is the camp's mascot, the friendly stereotyped "Chief Wahoo," replaced by the real deal: the mysterious and fearsome Buck Silverstone, who prefers the sinister warrior name "Redclaw." Under Redclaw's tutelage, the camp's quaint "Indian program" spirals from collecting arrowheads into an angry rebuke of Manifest Destiny -- not for the sake of historical awakening but for vengeance.
The opening-night campfire sizzles with Redclaw's mysticism and malice and concludes with a melodramatic retelling of the local legend of the "Mad Cook of Pymatuning" -- a cannibalistic killer whose menacing myth soon blurs into reality. Campmaster Woody Wentworth's "slightly wacky philosophy" of mischievous but supposedly character-building surprises strays beyond familiar hijinks -- the Forbidden Woods, the Snipe Hunt -- into ever-escalating rounds of Darwinian combat.
If this sounds like the blueprint for a low-budget horror film, you're right -- and not just any horror film but a favorite of gore gourmands, "Friday the 13th" (1980), which placed a band of naive campers at the mercy of nature and local lore. And that is the splendid irony of this book. With a keen sense of genre, Lehmann-Haupt -- a stalwart book reviewer (and now chief obituary writer) for the New York Times -- has crafted something surprisingly magical: a horror novel for people who don't read horror novels. The Mad Cook of Pymatuning is a smart, serious embrace of tropes familiar to B movies and skull-shrouded paperbacks -- Indian burial grounds, secret histories, ominous strangers, clueless teenagers -- that pushes past the cliches to the origins of their power: the stories behind the scares.
If, as folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand teaches, every "urban legend" has an elemental cautionary motif, then every story, whether classified as "horror" or "mystery" or "chick lit," matters; even a cheesy movie conveys some meaning. For "Friday the 13th" and other slashfests, the lesson is puerile and puritanical: Teens who drink, do drugs or have sex will die. Only the innocent -- most famously, Jamie Lee Curtis in "Halloween" (1978) -- can escape the enigmatic monster whose blood-soaked blade enforces obedience and conformity.
Lehmann-Haupt explores a far more complex and certainly more realistic moral realm -- one in which good and evil, innocence and guilt, victim and monster coexist, intrinsic to the human condition. Jerry Muller is no innocent, and his reminiscence of the mayhem that bloodied Camp Seneca confesses to nothing but regret. His nemesis, Redclaw, is not a monster but a problematic incarnation of the "mad cook" who lurks inside each of us. And central among the childish things put -- and taken -- away is the simplistic, B-movie perception of reality:
"I desperately needed to see things as being all for the best that summer. There was in me then an overwhelming urge to deny the presence of any evil in the people around me . . . because, I guess, for a child to recognize malevolence in those he counts on to love and protect him would mean having to face that there's really no one but yourself out there to look after you. An almost impossible thing for any child to do, hence his attribution of evil to monsters, hobgoblins, or bogeymen. That summer, even at seventeen, I remained that child."
If there is one misstep here, it is the novel's structure: Jerry's memoir, however compelling, has no context. Despite his intrusion into these pages, we know nothing about the older Jerry or how that summer changed him, shaped him and brought him, almost a lifetime later, to this moment of revelation.
Still, his lesson is profound. There are no real monsters, but there is a ghost that haunts each of us: the past. *
Douglas E. Winter, a Washington, D.C., attorney, is the author of the novel "Run" and the critical biography "Clive Barker: The Dark Fantastic."