Book Review: The Cave Ghost by John M Donovan
Reviewed by M. Creighton, Palookaville Weekly Shopper
When I heard that literary historians had turned up a trove of old and unpublished manuscripts by
John M Donovan, I was eager to get my hands on any or all of it. After all, I’d been somewhat entertained by Donovan’s novels The Fraternity and Trombone Answers, so I could hardly wait to get a deeper look into the mind of this old-school storyteller.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much there.
The entire stack of manuscripts had been sloppily handwritten in various ink colors on three-ring binder paper. I grabbed the first one on the stack (The Cave Ghost, written in 1970 when Donovan was 10 years old) and found that Donovan’s penmanship was the least of his problems. Thankfully, the story is only 14 pages long—though that doesn’t stop the author from cramming 19 chapters into it.
Pictured here, the first page shows that "The Cave Ghost" was not the original title. Donovan evidently started out to write a story called The Day of the Terrorizer but changed his mind at some point, probably shortly after realizing he knew very little about terrorism. Or, for that matter, days. This first page also shows Donovan’s strange writing style at the time, heavy on dialogue, light on narrative, and even lighter on context. The conversations fly by with so little connection to the way real people talk that the whole thing becomes insanely surreal. We don’t know where we are, we don’t know these people, and we don’t know what they’re doing.
For instance, when the character JC says “My hammer hit my foot,” the character CB asks “Are you blind?” JC’s response, “Last examination???” is not something any rational person would say. Perhaps JC had a sarcastic thought in mind, something like “Well, during my last examination, the ophthalmologist said I might have a bit of astigmatism in my right eye.” But Donovan reduces it to a throw-away non sequitur because he’s in a hurry to get to this next gripping plot point: The character JQ arrives (we know this because her initials suddenly appear on the left side of the red vertical line) and says hi. JD (Donovan himself) asks “Did you just get here?” and JQ replies in the affirmative.
That, seriously, is as gripping as it gets.
The plot involves these odd characters attempting to solve a mystery. Two boys named Dean Maggin and Wilf Blar (that is not a misprint—the character’s name is Wilf Blar) are walking through a woods near Hillsboro, Indiana when a man named Henry Lansing takes a shot at them. Lansing apologizes and says he’s looking for someone to help him remove ghosts from his house in Galesburg, Illinois, some 200 miles away. We are never told why Lansing has so little faith in his local ghost-removers. We are simply left to assume that this Indiana forest is the place to find them, and that shooting at them is the customary way to get their attention. Of course, Maggin and Blar don’t bother explaining that they have no ghost-hunting credentials. They jump, as anyone would, at the chance to go to Galesburg.
As it turns out, Donovan and his friends are in a nearby cave eavesdropping on Lansing’s negotiations with the hikers. Before they can make their exit, however, they are confronted by a beautiful woman named Ann LaTeta, who’s carrying “the same gun that Henry L. had tried to shoot Dean and Wilf with.” How the first-person narrator has gathered this information is not explained. We learn that LaTeta is in cahoots with Lansing, and that they have installed robotic arms on the cave walls. (Chapter 4 is titled, in fact, “Arms of Mechanical Energy.”) In a scene neither more nor less implausible than anything else in the story, the robotic arms grip our five heroes and extend them outside the cave and over a creek. Not a river, not an alligator-filled swamp, not a pool of carbolic acid, but a creek. The villainous Ann LaTeta drops the young mystery-solvers into three inches of water, and they walk away safely without being shot at.
LaTeta and Lansing then conspire to kidnap JQ because why would they do anything involving a cave ghost at this late point in the story? The kidnapping occurs while JQ is on her way to JC’s house to do some research on Hernando DeSoto and the Mississippi River. (Is this important to the plot? No. Nothing is important to the plot.) Lansing calls JC with the ransom demands: $760. There are no further instructions, but Lansing insinuates that he might be paying them a visit that night. We know he’s serious because he ends this line with a sinister “Heh heh.”
The entirety of Chapter 9 is shown here. JC fears for his life thanks to the vague threat of the kidnapper Lansing (who, let’s face it, only needs $760—even in 1970 money this could have been procured fairly easily). JC announces that if anyone knocks on the C family’s door that night, he’ll fire his gun through the window. (What gun? He has a gun? Did we know this?) Incredibly, the boy’s father says “OK, all right with me.” In the hands of a more skilled writer, this line might have been a trenchant comment on permissive parenting. We know, of course, that this is not the case.
In most literature involving kidnapping, the kidnappers remain in hiding and demand that the ransom be delivered to some secret and obscure location. Purely by accident, Donovan stands this trope on its head by having Lansing bring JQ to the C home in hopes of collecting his $760. In Chapter 10, the local sheriff arrives, apparently because his duties include stopping in at random homes to make sure no kidnapping is going on. The sheriff arrests Lansing and LaTeta, and Donovan’s brother shows up in time to say “They arrested him!”
According to all the biographical information I could find, Donovan’s brother was five years old and not a licensed driver at the time The Cave Ghost was written.
The story takes a strange twist here. (Sorry—I had a hard time keeping a straight face while I wrote that.) JD receives a letter from his cousin DT, who says they’re having ghost troubles at his house, which happens to be in Galesburg, Illinois. Apparently nobody trusts the Galesburg ghost-seeker-outers. When Donovan and the others arrive at DT’s home they are now accompanied by SC, LB, SF, and MR, who together add up to about five percent of a fully developed character. DT explains that the ghost only shows up when girls are around, but half a page later, the ghost appears in full view of everyone, male and female alike. This is an egregious editing error but truly par for the course at this point.
In Chapter 14, Dean Maggin and Wilf Blar invade the T home and yell “Hands up!” but are quickly dispatched by karate chops from SF, JD, LB, et al. (Do all these kids know karate? Heck yes.) The ghost shows up that night, says “Oooooooo,” and vanishes. The mystery-solving team of initials prowls around the house in the wee morning hours and mistakes Dean Maggin for the ghost. (Is Dean still hurting from his karate smackdown? We don’t know. Did Donovan forget that it even happened? I wouldn’t bet against it.)
In Chapter 17, the characters discover a hidden stairway that leads to a tunnel. They walk for hours (JD, in fact, says “We’ve been walking for hours”) and end up in the cave in Indiana. Let me reiterate: They walk in a tunnel for 200 miles and END UP IN THE CAVE IN INDIFREAKINANA.
And what do they do then? They walk the 200 miles back to Galesburg.
(This paragraph contains major spoilers, though it’s difficult to see what could be spoiled at this juncture.) The next day, the headline of the local paper reads BOY DIES IN HILLSBORO CAVE-IN. The lead sadly informs us that “Wilf Blar, dressed as a ghost, was killed in a cave-in,” and JD and his cohorts make the only logical deduction: “Wilf Blar was the ghost!” So naturally, the book ends with the arrest of Dean Maggin.
The sequel to The Cave Ghost is called The Burning Diamond Mystery. We know this because JD says “Now we have to solve ‘The Burning Diamond Mystery.’”
My editor wants me to review that one too. Lord give me strength.