Yawn Saul

Anticlimax.

I picked up John Saul’s The Blackstone Chronicles this week, the 6-in-one version of the serial novel about (say it with me now, horror-book fans) a little New England town secretly awash in evil, evil, evil. Or possibly “an ancient, lurking evil” or “an unspeakable evil,” which I always think is good going for those who can nonetheless write 400 pages about it.

And that’s the problem: not that Saul’s novel isn’t competent, or chilling, or (as the occasion demands) disgusting, but that I expected so much more. I’ve been reading the backs of his paperback novels since I was about seven, you see: it was a hobby of mine when I’d accompany my mother to the grocery store as a kid, and a lot of what I absorbed then has stuck with me. To this day the mere cover of Comes The Blind Fury gives me the creeping willies, and this was going to be my first real taste of the man’s work.

The Blackstone Chronicles has murder galore, a haunted asylum, a lobotomy, an evisceration, and a demon-doll in it, among other things. So why am I not writing this all a-tremble at 4 a.m.?

1) It’s not that gory. And I for one am grateful, as vivid descriptions in books are even harder for me to shake than movie images.

2) Such nice people. Here, I think, is where Saul diverges from someone like Stephen King. King’s novels are populated by incredibly nasty bastards, and most of those aren’t even the monsters. Saul’s plague of cursed objects indeed brings out the dark side of Blackstone’s residents, but many of them are no darker than, say, the average co-worker.

3) Insufficient crazy. This is a book about an asylum haunted by the madmen who were patients and, worse, the madmen who were in charge. The latter, and the inhuman treatment of mental patients generally in the early 20th century, is Saul’s main focus. And yet there really wasn’t enough in the book about the terror of madness, perhaps due to the varied nature of the serial novel’s vignettes. By contrast with the best portrayals of insanity I’ve read*, the book was lacking–a serious charge considering its theme.

* Oddly enough, these are both in genre fiction. In Jennifer Crusie’s lighthearted romance novel Crazy For You, the transformation of one character from jilted boyfriend to tormented stalker is wholly squirmworthy. And Lois McMaster Bujold’s description of Mark’s torture and disintegration in Mirror Dance is so powerful and upsetting I honestly don’t know whether I’ll ever be able to read it again. A hell of a tribute to good writing, I know.

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