Today I completed the latest Amazon "Vine" program book, House of Reckoning, by John Saul. This is the first John Saul book I have ever read although I had listened to one in audio book format. That one had a great premise but seemed somewhat clumsy in its execution and even boring. The boring nature of it could have been a by-product of the audio book production as that does sometimes happen. So in my never ending search for good horror writing, I thought I'd give him another chance.
House of Reckoning has a fairly standard premise for a horror tale. A 14-year old girl named Sarah is hit by a drunk driver (who happens to be her father) and since her mother has already passed away, she is put into a foster home while her father has to go to jail. Sarah now has a disability and walks with a limp. We learn of her amazing artistic ability and we meet a fellow student of hers, named Nick who hears voices. Then there is Sarah's art teacher who lives alone in an old house that used to be an insane asylum. Of course all of this intertwines and we experience a pretty typical haunted house sort of story. These three characters must come together because everybody else in the town is a one dimensional, sterotypical character who delights in teasing a 14 year old girl with a limp and proclaiming the art teacher who lives in the old house, a "witch".
The story reads easily and the plot is easy to follow. Definitely a quick read. Unfortunately, the novel abounds with problems. Chief among them is the way the characters behave, especially the "bad" characters. Sarah's foster family makes Cinderella's step family look like angels. They treat Sarah like a slave, demanding total obedience in all things while they kick back with their feet up. They proclaim their Christianity and blame Sarah and the devil inside her for everything that goes wrong. How stereotypical can you get? The rest of the town includes the power hungry sheriff, his son who happens to be the school bully, etc. all of which make fun of Sarah the gimp. The concept of the haunted house itself, had potential as a great character in its own right and it does take matters into its own hands, so to speak. I won't provide spoilers but suffice it to say that the great concept that the author begins with never really pans out. When it comes time for the horror to shine through, it's rather dull. Events are wrapped up in a tidy manner, just so conveniently that one wonders if the word count was approaching the limit.
Despite having pointed out all of these negative things, I actually enjoyed reading the novel. I did want to see what happens next, so obviously it wasn't all bad. This is John Saul's 36th novel to date. He sells a lot of books and obviously, prolific authors have hits and misses. My search for good horror writing goes on but I haven't entirely given up on John Saul.
In contrast to this novel, I completed the marvelous short story in Harlan Ellison's The Essential Ellison, "Tired Old Man". This, reportedly, is one of Ellison's favorite among the numerous stories he has written. It's a first person account of a successful writer of mysteries who reluctantly spends time at a boring writer's forum but happily encounters an old man with whom he has a delightful conversation. The old man sees through the front that the protagonist puts up and gets him to see himself in a new light. The plot is simple but the essence of the story and how it conveys that essence to the reader is truly fantastic. It is based on an encounter that Ellison, himself, once had with an old man who he did not know at the time but later discovered was his favorite writer, Cornell Woolrich. I see why Ellison likes this story so much and, no doubt, this story will stay with me as well for a long time to come.
Next up: Galveston, by P.G. Nagle, the third book in the "Civil War in the West" series.