In the 1990s Greer became involved with journalistic and political writing as well as other nonfiction projects. Greer’s refusal to be typed into one style or genre may have kept him from having the kind of audience that always knows what to expect, but has allowed him to continue to explore and experiment.
Novelist, poet, educator. Ben Greer was born on December 4, 1948, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, the son of Bernard Eugene Greer, a television newsman, and Margaret Philips. Greer came to the University of South Carolina just as James Dickey and George Garrett were establishing its creative writing program. Greer studied with both of them while working as a prison guard at Columbia’s notorious Central Correctional Institution. After graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in 1971, Greer was accepted into the prestigious creative writing program at Hollins College, where he studied poetry and fiction with R. H. W. Dillard and William Jay Smith. After earning his master of arts degree from the Hollins program in1973, Greer left the South and academia and moved to Maine where he worked on a fishing boat. During this first long Maine winter, he began to forge his experiences as a prison guard into his first novel, Slammer.
Slammer, published in 1975, was a critical and popular success. It was hailed for its gritty authenticity, and Greer was praised as a writer “with amazing economy of means” and great promise for the future. In his novel, Greer created a prison that contained hopelessness and terror but also courage and compassion.
Greer’s second novel, Halloween (1978), demonstrated both his versatility and his desire to recreate himself. Avoiding the temptation to capitalize on Slammer with another work about political or social issues, Greer merged the southern gothic family novel with a thriller and created a tale of a psychotic killer and disintegrating family. Taking place during a single Halloween night in a southern coastal city, this novel manages to balance the immediate horror of the serial killer with a family that drains the life out of its members. Halloween was a commercial success, but some critics missed the gritty reality of Slammer and found the new novel stagy and unrealistic. Others saw it as a noble risk, which was not always successful.
In 1979 Greer returned to the University of South Carolina as a faculty member in the English department’s creative writing program. Greer’s third novel, Time Loves a Hero (1986), brought the protagonist, a young southern writer, to a New England island to encounter a wealthy northeastern family. Highly anticipated, this novel represented another radical change of genres.
Loss of Heaven (1988) was Greer’s exploration of a traditional southern family facing the political and social changes of the 1960s. With locales ranging from a Trappist monastery to the jungles of Southeast Asia, and characters like Lyndon Johnson, faded French colonial bureaucrats, southern grandmothers, and civil rights marchers, Loss of Heaven was compelling, if perhaps overly ambitious.
In the 1990s Greer became involved with journalistic and political writing as well as other nonfiction projects. In Presumed Guilty: The Tim Wilkes Story (1995), Greer explored the indictment, trial, and acquittal of a local politician and mused about the meaning of justice. His fascination with politics led him to work for a time with controversial South Carolina political maven Lee Atwater. In the new century, Greer’s experiment with forms and genre produced two well-reviewed books of poetry, A Late Disorder (2007) and The Bright House (2011), along with a play Little Tin Gods (2008). In 2006 Greer returned to the setting and subject matter of Halloween but adapted it into a detective novel, Murder in the Holy City, creating an aristocratic detective from an old Charleston family who pursues a crazed serial killer specializing in killing English professors.
Although Greer’s refusal to be typed into one style or genre may have kept him from having the kind of audience that always knows what to expect, it has allowed him to continue to explore and experiment.
Garrett, George. “Ben Greer.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 6. American Novelists since World War II, Second Series. Edited by James E. Kibler. Detroit: Gale, 1980.