A celebrated playwright is stalked by his muse in Cadnum's first non-occult novel, an overwrought thriller that's nonetheless as effectively macabre as his supernatural yarns (St. Peter's Wolf, 1991, etc.). Hamilton Speke is the ``great man'' whose life shatters when he receives a call from Timothy Asquith, the long-lost writing partner of his youth, who--we know but Speke doesn't--has gone on to an obscure career as a serial killer while Speke has vaulted to world acclaim. Speke agrees to meet his old friend at Speke's estate; there, Asquith, glittering with malice, accuses Speke of stealing his early manuscripts and passing them off as his own, and demands all that Speke now possesses. Knowing that Asquith is telling the truth, Speke offers a cash settlement; Asquith, enraged, attacks Speke, who impales him on a fireplace mantel. Racked by guilt and fear, Speke buries Asquith; but time and again during the next few days, the playwright terrifyingly spies Asquith lurking among the estate's shadows. Has the victim returned to haunt his killer? Not at all, Speke learns, when in a frenzy he digs up Asquith's grave and finds only a rotting deer--forcing Asquith to reveal himself: The ``murder'' was only a vengeful bit of staging by Asquith, who--with the help of a surprise accomplice- -dug himself out of the grave, wiped off the fake blood, and posed as a ghost. Now that Speke knows he's alive, though, Asquith turns to his greatest skill--slaughter--and rampages through the estate, which he's set on fire, in a climactic bloodbath. When Speke tries to put out the fire, he is ``fighting chaos itself, the void that waits to thaw and flood, the black fire that consumes every human hope''--a typically overblown sentiment in Cadnum's hyperbolic horror tale, always gripping and smartly paced but usually shaded just this side of ludicrous--and sometimes not even.