Way back at the end of August, in anticipation of the TSL’s Horrorthon, I went down to my local Half-Price Books and I explored their collection of old horror paperbacks. Among the books that I pulled off the shelf was the 1981 horror novel, The Beast Within by Edward Levy.
The book opens, in the 1920s, on the Arkansas farm of Henry Scruggs. Henry is a cruel religious fanatic, one who views fornication as being such a sin that he refuses to even have sex with much younger wife, Sarah. (Sarah, for her part, was practically sold to Henry by her father.) One day, an Englishman named Connors shows up at the farm. He’s a traveling bible salesman who specializes in seducing farm girls. When he attempts to do just that to Sarah, they both end up getting caught by Henry. Henry sets his wife on fire and then chains up Connors in the basement. That’s where Connors spends the next 20 years, while Henry prays for his soul.
By the time Henry dies and Connors manages to escape, Connors is no longer human. He’s been turned into a savage beast, who lives in the woods and eats anything that he comes across. The beast eventually attempts to catch a snake and ends up getting a poisonous bite as a result. However, before it dies, the Beast rapes Carolyn McCleary.
When Carolyn subsequently gives birth to a son named Michael, both she and her husband, Eli, convince themselves that Michael is Eli’s child, even though there’s no physical resemblance. As a child, Michael has a terrible temper and is sometimes violent. He has terrible dreams and sometimes wakes up covered in the blood of other animals. After Eli and Carolyn are forced to resort to extreme measures to control Michael’s impulses, it seems as if Michael has recovered. He grows up to be a relatively normal boy.
But then puberty hits….
The Beast Within is a grim, dark, and occasionally depressing little book. It’s also compulsively readable. Though many of the scenes between Henry, Sarah, and Conners verge a bit too much towards the cartoonish side, the book picks up once Henry’s out of the way and the focus shifts to the McClearys. You find yourself hoping the best for Eli, Carolyn, and Michael, even though you know it’s doubtful that this story is going to have a happy ending. The Best Within is short, sordid, pulpy as can be, and undeniably effective.