Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Richard Matheson, and….John Saul?
It’s hard to admit that, as an avid horror fan and, even more importantly, horror writer, I hadn’t read any John Saul. I must have heard of him, though, because when I found his novels amongst shelves of 25cent books at a white elephant sale in Oakland, there was a little self-shame for not having sought him out before.
I picked up three books of his: Suffer the Children, The Homing, and Faces of Fear. When I got home I did a little research and saw that Suffer the Children was his first novel. Considering whatever novel I get published next would also be my first novel, I thought it would be the most fitting read. Sometimes as writers I think we get caught up looking at successful novelists/novels and comparing our work to theirs. We must remember that it is a whole different ball game for an established author to get a book published. To get a more accurate sense of what it takes, we’d be better off modeling after the books that made names rather than those that sustained them.
Suffer the Children has a pretty straight-forward plot: a hundred years ago a man raped and killed his ten-year-old daughter and then committed suicide by throwing himself into the sea. Today, children begin to disappear. The descendant family of the child-killer, the Congers, seem to be the center of it all.
It’s written simply, which I think is a good stance to take on a first book. Instead of having tons of characters and plot lines and over-descriptions, Saul tells a fairly uncomplicated story in a very straight-forward way. Overall, it wasn’t the best thing I’ve read, nor the worst. I’d say it was memorable, at best.
As a writer, one thing I noticed the most was how Saul handles dialogue. He does this thing often where a character will say something, he’ll break to describe the other character’s facial expression, and then the speaking character’s next words will be a reflection of that. Like this:
“We have to keep her here overnight,” the doctor said. When Shara looked concerned, he sped to reassure her. “It’s standard procedure. There’s really nothing to worry about at this point.”
It reminded me of how in screenwriting a character’s dialogue will be broken up by the tag ‘off his look.’ I personally found it slightly annoying. It was an effective way of description, but it was used so often that it became something that stood out to me more often than not and pulled me out of the story.
He captures real speech well, though, and sometimes a little too well. For example, at times his characters will go off on tangents, or say something to suggest a new line of speech but which never gets finished. For example, at one part a character said she was going to explain something and then commented on something else and never ended up explaining. It wasn’t written like it was intentional but more like either the character (or the author) forgot that the promise of explanation was presented. This, of course, happens in real life, but in a story it makes me feel like something’s missing.
The story also has some plot issues. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s hard to believe that some of the crimes committed would be able to occur. It reminds me of a cartoon where a homeowner stands on the porch talking on the phone while goons clean out his place, then he turns around, stunned that his house is emptied of anything valuable. Also, this was one of those books where, as I neared the end, I was constantly checking how far I was from the last page because I felt there was a lot more to be explained and not that much time to do it.
All that being said, John Saul succeeds at crafting a horror story which is subtly scary. There are ghosts, but you never really see them. And without some things here and there (which wouldn’t make sense in the absence of the paranormal) the story could have still worked without the supernatural. It makes it that much more creepy when we’re reminded that element exists, though. He also does a good job of gradually upping the ante. Unlike some horror novels, he doesn’t start off with the death and the blood and the death. I was unsure most of the novel just how far the forces at work would go, and when they pressed to the next level I was surprised and knew then more was at stake than I had previously suspected.
Saul develops his characters well, I think, though they could have a little more depth to them. The most interesting, by far, is Elizabeth, a thirteen year old girl who seems to be possessed. We’re kept from the inside of her head on purpose and we don’t really know her motivations until the end, and even then it’s still a little iffy. We see her actions mostly from very far away. It paints two distinct characters who are hard to reconcile. The interesting thing is, she can switch from one side to the other very quickly and it is hard to tell exactly when the switch is made. Sometimes it made me think that Saul was unsure of the mechanics of her character. For me, the verdict is still out on whether he pegged her exactly as he wanted or if he was still struggling with her development and never finished.
All in all, it’s a simple book with simple frights, but powerful nonetheless. I wonder if he got better with time? Only one way to find out…