By Gene Lyons
Updated July 31, 1992 at 04:00 AM EDT

There’s not a student enrolled in a creative-writing program who hasn’t had the daydream: Why not take a vacation from serious fiction and knock off a thriller? After all, if Stephen King can earn more money than George Steinbrenner by making teenyboppers wet their britches, how hard can it be?

Much harder than it looks, actually. Most King imitators find striking the right ghoulish tone nearly impossible. What is different about David Martin — a former fellow at Bread Loaf (the Vermont writer’s conference where serious literary reputations are burnished) and the author of novels with solemn titles such as The Crying Heart Tattoo (1982) and The Beginning of Sorrows (1987) — isn’t simply that the rascal went out and wrote a thriller. It’s that he did it so well the first time around. Martin’s 1990 Lie to Me was an ingeniously narrated tale about a vengeful ex-con with a disturbing gift for psychosexual torture.

The same, alas, cannot be said for Bring Me Children, an absurd mishmash of Southern gothic and Hollywood thriller set in a West Virginia coal-mining town. Having inexplicably broken down crying in the midst of the evening newscast, John Lyon — a previously serene and imperturbable network anchorman known behind his back as ”His Lordship” — finds himself put out to pasture. So he heeds an unlikely news tip from an aged black woman who accosts him on the street muttering about 18 dead babies before throwing herself under a taxi. Next thing you know, Lyon has chased the story to a cabin in the West Virginia mountains where he discovers a mysterious coffin-shaped crate. ”He freezes, feeling like someone in a movie audience, watching a horror film, except he is the one up on the screen, and he’s shouting warnings at himself, don’t do it, don’t do it, but of course it’s too late for warnings; Lyon is opening the box….finally seeing by the flame’s yellow glow that the crate contains a woman’s body.”

And what a body! A gorgeous, naked black woman — only apparently deceased, you see, although our intrepid anchorman doesn’t know that as he runs one guilty hand over the lush contours of the body, while with the other hand…well, let’s just say that Randolph, the retarded dwarf who’s peering through the window with one of his terrifying dogs at his side, knows that his beloved mother warned him that God punishes people who do wicked things like that.

Meanwhile, back in town, Carl, the 425-pound redneck deputy, has delivered yet another anonymous drifter to the chamber of Dr. Mason Quinndell, the blind physician suspected of multiple infanticide. The mad doctor’s got the poor sad sack trussed up on an examining table like a Thanksgiving turkey. ”Henry,” he wants to know, ”what do you think of the profound inequity of a God who would blind me and yet allow you to have your twenty-twenty vision?…Can you say enucleation, Henry?”

Fortunately, our anchorman doesn’t have to confront the maniacal Quinndell alone. No sooner does Lyon consummate his desires with the naked party in the crate than she is roused from a self-induced trance revealing herself to be a brilliant professor of American folklore at New York University. As the granddaughter of the aged party who threw herself in front of the taxi, Claire Cept may or may not have cast a voodoo spell upon Lyon because she was too shy to introduce herself properly. Having herself been raped by the wicked Quinndell at 14 — well, no sense giving the plot away. You get the picture. It’s Ted Baxter versus Ted Bundy with voodoo, necrophilia, child abuse, crooked sheriffs, dwarfs, monster dogs, and two or three other lurid items thrown in — almost as if Martin had set himself the challenge of seeing just how low he could go and still make a buck. The amazing thing is that the man writes well enough to keep you turning the pages.