One of the most misunderstood and least recognized urban fantasy characters has to be the humble ghūl, known more popularly as the ghoul. Ghouls conjures thoughts of things that go bump in the night, of salivating, night-and-graveyard-loving things you would not want to meet at the bus stop. However, there are variations on the theme when it comes to ghoul characteristics, and in recent times, those more ancient traits have become cause for confusion. Some say that ghouls are only female, that they sometimes hunt in packs, that light hurts them, that they eat the living and the dead, and that their bite can turn the victim into a ghoul, or some other creature. Others say that ghouls are some sort of monster or evil spirit that hang out in graveyards, consume human flesh, and are identified as undead, but if so, how are they different from zombies? What makes a ghoul?
The word ghūl (which is the male-specific term, while ghoulah is the female-specific, and ghilan is the plural) is of Arabic origin, and it more often referred to a demon, or similar creature of lore, than it referred to the thing folks say lives in cemeteries. ghūl is first mentioned in One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Arabic, Persian, and Mesopotamian folklore from the first century, A.D. Consider “The History of Gherib and His Brother Agib”: Gherib was a prince who fights off a family of ghilan, makes them his slaves, and converts them to Islam. In other Arabic stories, a ghūl referred to a shape-shifting, desert-dwelling creature that nabs people–especially children–and takes them to abandoned places to eat them.
Hans Christian Andersen, Lord Byron, Edgar Allen Poe, and H.G. Wells have all touched on ghouls. However, we can’t consider ghoul-ness and its place in popular culture without looking to Lovecraft, who, by my account, certainly offers the clearest identification in his 1926 story, “Pickman’s Model”:
These figures were seldom completely human, but often approached humanity to varying degrees. Most of the bodies, while roughly bipedal, had a forward slumping, and a vaguely canine cast. The texture of the majority was a kind of unpleasant rubberiness … But damn it all, it wasn’t even the fiendish subject that made it such an immortal fountain-head of all panic—not that, nor the dog face with its pointed ears, bloodshot eyes, flat nose, and drooling lips. It wasn’t the scaly claws nor the mould-caked body nor the half-hooved feet—none of these, though any one of them might well have driven an excitable man to madness.
Lovecraft offers other views of ghouls in earlier works: “The Lurking Fear,” “The Rats in the Walls,” and later, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. But those ghouls are different: not always horrific, not always underground-dwelling. And if you need a bit of kinky doings, consider Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Nameless Offspring,” where the ghoul does more than just make a meal of the corpses it finds.
Despite all that . . . wait for it . . . ghoulishness, I admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for them. It started with that campy flick, The Monster Club from 1981. If you haven’t had the, um, pleasure(?) of seeing it, you must, if for no other reason than for the joy of watching Vincent Price and John Carradine together. But I digress. Monster Club is a collection of three stories with musical interludes between (spoiler: yes, there are monsters in a secret-ish English nightclub). The first is about a lonely creature that kills with a whistle, the second is about a vampire and his family, and the third … well, the third is ghoulish. It is about a movie director, a hidden village that he thinks is perfect for his next location, and his dismay at finding a strange but lovely young woman there who seems to have no notion of the bustling metropolis just down the road. Did I mention that the poor woman and her family members have been eating corpses and taking clothes from the village cemetery? Ultimately, Mr. Director discovers that the cupboard is bare, the village members are a might peckish, and they are looking at him as if he were some sort of tasty exotic treat.
Ah! So it seems that to properly classify a creature as a ghoul, it must consume human flesh of some sort. Such a one is not necessarily dead, but enjoys a cemetery snack and–after spending inordinate amounts of time among the deceased–may begin to take on the appearance of the dead.
And since we go through spats where there is an overabundance of standard creatures like vampires (note the popularity of films like the Blade series, and of books and movies like the Twilight series) in urban fantasy, I advocate that we take up the ghoul banner. If you write urban fantasy, how about making that weird guy in the condo complex a ghoul instead of a vampire? What about it?