UNDER THE LAKE

By Stuart Woods

Simon and Schuster. 301 pp. $17.95

Wherehave we heard this story before?

A burned-out writer retreats from the big city to a small, isolated country town where he hopes to write the book that will turn his life around. An outsider, he is viewed with suspicion by the close-mouthed locals, but he nevertheless finds a lover -- and a mystery that lurks behind the town's fac ade of pastoral simplicity. There is something about the small town -- something strange, something haunting -- that compels the writer to abandon his book and investigate. He glimpses firsthand the ghosts of the town's past, which lead him inexorably into dark secrets that have lain dormant for decades.

Stephen King told this story in "Salem's Lot" (1975); Peter Straub told it in "If You Could See Me Now" (1977). In the succeeding decade, it has become the single most popular -- and thus hackneyed -- formula of paperback horror fiction.

It is the story told by Stuart Woods in his new novel, "Under the Lake."

Woods, for the uninitiated, wrote the generational mystery novel "Chiefs," which was adapted as a television mini-series, and has recently climbed the paperback best-seller lists with an entry in the Soviet sub-hunt genre, "Deep Lie." In "Under the Lake," he returns to the backwoods Georgia setting of "Chiefs," revisiting one of its characters in an unrelated story that takes place a decade later.

"Chiefs" saw investigative reporter John Howell assist a black police chief in solving 40 years of psychotic murders. "On reflection," we are told, "that had been the one that finished him as a reporter." Howell's reports on the case brought him a Pulitzer Prize, a bestselling book, a daily newspaper column -- and a beautiful, wealthy bride. What more could he ask for? Neither Howell nor his creator is entirely sure. Success has driven Howell to drink, forsaking everything he has gained; sooner or later, it will drive him to suicide.

Fate -- in the form of a sympathetic brother-in-law -- brings Howell one last chance: to hack out the memoirs of a chicken-farming magnate while camped in a rustic lakeside cabin. So Howell, whiskey and word processor in hand, departs Atlanta for Sutherland, Ga., whose entire economy depends upon a dam erected in the 1950s -- a dam whose construction flooded the homes and farmlands of the town's Irish community, creating a picturesque yet decidedly creepy lake:

"It didn't look man-made, he thought; it was too beautiful. He would have thought a finger of some ancient glacier had scratched it out. Suddenly, looking out over the water as he drove, he felt a tiny knot of dread forming inside him. Three months here pounding out garbage, and then what? Sixty grand in the bank and nowhere to go with it but down. He had the peculiar and very real feeling that he might never leave this place."

Inevitably, Howell's ghostwriting leads to ghost-chasing. There is something under the lake -- literally, metaphorically and perhaps spiritually -- and Howell is drawn into its depths to confront a 25-year-old mystery involving murder and other dark deeds.

The result, despite its formulaic plot, is an effective suspense novel. Woods has woven his mystery with complex and varied threads: a local family that disappeared when the farmlands were flooded; incestuous marriages that have bred both deformities and strange psychic gifts; rumors of drug smuggling; two-faced city officials; and a second investigative reporter, working undercover in the county sheriff's office.

"Under the Lake" is not, however, a horror novel -- at least not a very good one. Woods' ghosts are superfluous to this story and not the least bit frightening; they serve as plot machinery, moving the story along where less dramatic devices might bog things down. Woods has borrowed a page from the "shudder pulps" of the 1930s, which cloaked the detective tale in the trappings of terror. Few leads are obtained through investigation or deduction; instead, the lake and its supernatural forces reveal the crucial clues -- not all at once, of course, or the book would be finished by Page 50, but with a piecemeal arbitrariness that both sustains Woods' mystery and propels the reader ever forward.

Stuart Woods is a straight-ahead, damn-the-torpedoes storyteller. Nothing seems to slow his pace, which keeps the reader turning page after page in a kind of breathless wonder. It is a style that, for the most part, works, but that often tosses credibility aside with breakneck abandon. There are precious few moments of introspection or reflection here. Characters fall in and out of love -- and in and out of bed -- in the space of a paragraph. Howell's wife leaves him in midbook; he weeps once, then scarcely thinks of her again. Spectral visions, se'ances, faith-healing miracles are accepted as mundanely as a mild case of indigestion.

In the novel's final pages, one of Woods' characters laments: "What editor would ever believe this? What reader would believe it?" The answer, of course, is that no one rationally would believe a word of "Under the Lake." But the likable, enthusiastic prose of Stuart Woods works like the patter of a stage magician; it deceives and entertains, and the reader ultimately cares little about whether he or she has been manipulated, if only for a moment, into believing.

The reviewer, a Washington attorney, is the author of "Stephen King: The Art of Darkness" and "Faces of Fear."