CREEPERS

By David Morrell

CDS. 354 pp. $24.95

The genre known as the thriller is a big tent. Visitors to the Web site of the fledgling International Thriller Writers organization will discover that the various classes of thriller include "the legal thriller, the spy thriller, the action-adventure thriller, the medical thriller, the police thriller, the romantic thriller, the historical thriller, the political thriller, the religious thriller, the high-tech thriller." Examples of this hybrid and cross-pollinating genre, according to the site's creators, extend back to Edgar Allan Poe and include such unexpected candidates as "Tarzan of the Apes" (1912), "The Andromeda Strain" (1969), "Deliverance" (1970) and "Interview With the Vampire" (1976). "What gives thrillers common ground," the editors write, "is the intensity of the emotions they create, particularly those of apprehension and exhilaration, of excitement and breathlessness."

Given such expansive accommodations, it's possible to fit nearly any body, shapely or not, into the House of Thriller. Perhaps this explains the genre's allure for readers: All they can count on is being surprised by what lurks inside.

David Morrell -- co-president of ITW and creator of that avenging icon named Rambo, who appeared in Morrell's debut novel, "First Blood" (1972) -- has been writing thrillers of one sort or another for more than 30 years. Certainly, his vast professional experience -- he also taught literature at the university level for 16 years -- can be relied on in matters of classification and exegesis. And luckily for fans of the genre, his hard-earned storytelling wisdom can be counted on to deliver a stellar, gut-wrenching performance in his latest book.

Featuring a serial killer, a treasure hunt, a fringe subculture, sociological commentary and sheer physical adventure, "Creepers" could perhaps be categorized as "dark suspense," however nebulous that modifier might sound. But the potentially disparate elements all cohere in the end, thanks to Morrell's narrative drive, stripped-down prose, thematic vitality and skill at characterization.

On the night the story opens -- all the action occurs in the span of eight hours, a compressive and propulsive narrative tactic -- Frank Balenger meets up with a quartet of "creepers," amateur adventurers who specialize in infiltrating abandoned urban structures for kicks. This evening Robert Conklin, Cora and Rick Magill and Vincent Vanelli plan to explore the Paragon Hotel, a massive building in Asbury Park, N.J., sealed off from the world for decades. Balenger initially represents himself as a reporter interested in the creeper milieu. But he's not being truthful, we eventually learn. He has a mission of his own. Unfortunately for all five explorers, other figures are interested in the secrets the Paragon contains -- merciless figures who will stop at nothing to get their way. What promised to be a few hours of harmless "city archaeology" soon turns into a hellish fight for survival.

It's impossible to be specific about the nature of the challenges faced by the quintet without giving away the very thrills that Morrell has labored so cleverly to produce, which arrive unexpectedly and with great impact. Obviously, the decaying infrastructure of the Paragon Hotel itself forms a large part of the danger: rotten floors and staircases that give way, flooded passages, secret corridors, doors that shouldn't be locked but are. The vividly realized fictional hotel assumes the role of a natural obstacle such as a mountain or jungle, and the efforts needed to conquer it are commensurate.

The really scary facets of the evening derive from the humans. Some of Morrell's bad guys are stock punks, useful but unmemorable. But the central villain possesses all the evil panache and psychotic intensity requisite for a worthy foe. As Balenger matches wits with the man who sits like a spider at the heart of the Paragon, both infrastructure and its inhabitants fuse into an allegorical portrait of a cruel universe where a malign deity treats humans as wanton boys do flies. Yet in the end, heroism and courage triumph, although at a severe cost (an ending that Morrell foreshadows from the first page).

At rare moments Morrell's ear for dialogue fails him. I doubt Cora, a woman in her early twenties (albeit with a nostalgic bent), would say, "Gosh, my dance card's all filled." But for the most part, the verbal give-and-take among the characters succeeds both in limning them and in propelling the action forward. Balenger's baiting of the psychotic killer is particularly tense, taut and revelatory of both men.

With its nonstop cascade of ingeniously contrived dangers and assaults, culminating in an apocalyptic finale, "Creepers" provides the essence of all thrillers: an intense emotional effect that will leave readers drained.