John Saul,
House of Reckoning
(Ballantine, 2009)

Billed as "vintage John Saul" and a novel that recaptures the energy and power of Suffer the Children, the author's first and best novel, House of Reckoning doesn't succeed at living up to all of the hype.

That being said, it is an absorbing and very good read. I don't think Saul will ever get the respect he truly deserves in the horror community, but this man knows how to tell a story and excels at building the most sympathetic of characters. House of Reckoning isn't a novel that's going to sit around on the night table for days once you start reading it; you'll want to finish this book quickly. As much as I enjoyed this novel, though, a plethora of nagging questions remain unanswered or less than fully addressed after in the end.

When you pick up a John Saul novel, you know you're going to be reading about good kids placed in horrible situations; the Saul pattern never really changes, a fact that his critics are more than happy to expound upon. And poor Sarah Crane may be the most sympathetic character of them all, though. Six months after her mother died of cancer, Sarah finds herself laid up in the hospital for weeks with a busted leg and hip (a tragedy suffered under some of the most tragic circumstances imaginable) while her father goes to jail for manslaughter. Once she's able to leave the hospital, she is placed with a foster family who treat (and mistreat) her as nothing more than slave labor. As the new, crippled kid at school, she is immediately ostracized. Her only friends are Bettina Philips, a most sympathetic art teacher (whom everyone in town labels a witch) and the designated crazy kid at school, Nick Dunnigan, who hears voices in his head and sees horrible visions. When Sarah is around, though, the voices in Nick's head are silent. The uncanny link between Sarah and Nick is also shared by Bettina -- or, to be more precise, the old house in which she lives, which used to be an institution for the criminally insane.

Though never remotely frightening, House of Reckoning does have a share of intense moments, with a few sudden (albeit somewhat predictable) surprises thrown in along the way. Saul packages the whole thing in a tight and pretty bow, but various aspects of the ending just don't ring true. Not only do several questions go unanswered, numbered among those are a couple of last-minute questions you wonder why Saul even raised in the first place. A religious aspect that Saul adds to the story also bothers me, as it is unclear what Saul's point is supposed to be. Sarah's foster family is supposedly ultra-religious in an Old Salem kind of way, but there is no evidence of this in their behavior and actions (especially in regards to Sarah). It's unclear if Saul is attacking Christianity in and of itself (perhaps as a byproduct of his own homosexuality) or just trying to add some unnecessary spice to the story.

Despite all of my criticisms and the novel's obvious weaknesses, though, I truly enjoyed reading House of Reckoning. It can be frustrating at times to be a John Saul fan, but the good almost always outweighs the bad.

book review by
Daniel Jolley

31 July 2010

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