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Lorne Field's caretaker weeds and writes

THE CARETAKER OF LORNE FIELD, by Dave Zeltserman. Overlook Press, 240 pp., $23.95.

Every man, woman, child - not to mention dog and plant - owes its life to Jack Durkin. Had he and nine generations of Durkins before him not been weeding a field in a small New England town from winter thaw to first frost, we'd all be goners. For these aren't weeds, but lethal, fanged killing machines that, if allowed to grow, would have us all for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

At least that's how Durkin, the title character of Dave Zeltserman's delicious horror-ish novel, "The Caretaker of Lorne Field," sees it. His family was contracted 300 years ago by desperate villagers convinced that these Godzillas in the grass would destroy the world if left unchecked.

They knew, says Durkin, that if you get really close to these ordinary-looking weeds, you can see tiny eyes, mouths and razor-sharp teeth that will sever a finger if not weeded just right. And, if allowed to grow . . . goodbye, cruel world.

Durkin, however, lives in an age of mean-spirited skepticism. Worse, the original town fathers didn't know about inflation, so the Durkin family still has to get by on the once princely sum of $8,000 a year, and even that's endangered by folks who increasingly see the contract as fanciful and Jack as cuckoo - his wife and eldest son among them.

This sets up the old "Turn of the Screw" debate. Is the governess projecting her problems on the children or is she protecting them from ghosts? Nothing new, perhaps, but Zeltserman masterfully balances the 52-year-old Durkin's bone-weary crotchetiness against the potential horrors of the evil weeds, the Aukowies.

Aukowies? Even the name suggests Durkin is a few bottles short of a six-pack, a situation exacerbated when teenagers pelt him in the field with tomatoes and he insists the sheriff not only track them down, but then hold a public hanging, as called for in the contract.

Zeltserman is the author of increasingly accomplished crime novels, distinguished by spare and crisp prose, believable dialogue, imaginative plot twists and tightly wound characters who don't wear out their welcome.

He may be even more suited to the fantasy/horror genre than to a literary life of crime. Without slowing the action, Zeltserman wryly sprinkles in sub-themes about belief vs. logic, sacrifice vs. selfishness, and one generation against another. Perhaps the most interesting characters in the book are the older people who believe in Durkin and who, knowing how underpaid and unappreciated he is, treat him like a local hero rather than the fool on the hill.

Of course, this is literally a dying breed of citizenry. The question is whether we'll all be a dying breed of humanity if Durkin isn't allowed to keep weeding. Me, I'm not saying anything except, keep reading. Durkin may or may not be a loose caboose, but Zeltserman is fully in control.

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