First published back in 1977, ‘Suffer The Children’ formed US author John Saul’s first published novel (but far from the first novel that he had written), introducing the world to this now well-known genre writer. The novel sold particularly well, with over a million copies sold worldwide. But most importantly, the novel formed a good solid platform to start off a long and reasonably prosperous career for the author.
In the picturesque seaside town of Port Arbello a young girl is out playing close to the nearby woods. However, unbeknown to the young girl, she is being closely watched. Her every move lustfully studied. The man can’t hold in his brutal desires any longer. And so he drags the girl into the woods, raping and killing her. His heinous crime over with; the man looks down at the lifeless corpse of the young girl. And now wracked with the guilt of raping and murdering his own daughter, the man casts himself off the top of the cliff edge into the punishing sea below.
Now, one hundred years later, Jack and Rose Conger are living in the same impressive home located at the very top of the hill that the murderous father had once lived. The house, having been passed down through the generations, now rests with Jack and Rose and their two children - six-year-old Elizabeth and thirteen-year-old Sarah.
But the once prestigious family have their own troubles. After their daughter Sarah suffered a traumatic experience in the very same woods as the young girl had been raped and murdered, the young girl has remained mute ever since. Deeply traumatised by the unspoken crime that had befallen her, Sarah is now psychologically fragile; only ever interacting with her older sister Elizabeth.
And then one by one the children of Port Arbello start disappearing. No one has any idea who is responsible. The community’s stretched emotions are all on edge as the town’s collective anger at the abductions continue to escalate. The local police officer is baffled by the events taking place. And trouble quickly starts to brew as unfounded suspicions and loose-tongued accusations begin to turn violent.
But Jack Conger is beginning to face up to his own worries. Things have never been quite right in their family. And now something about the past is clawing its way back. Something that won’t stay dead. He doesn’t know who he can tell about his fears, so he begins his own investigations; digging deep into his family’s ancestral past.
But as the days pass by in Port Arbello, the menacing dark cloud remains over the once happy sea-side town. And out by the cliff edge, in a darkened cave away from the eyes of the world, the cries of suffering go unanswered...
‘Suffer The Children’ is where it all started for Saul. The tale is stark and bold in its absolutely uncompromising approach to delivering impactful emotive horror. The story kicks off with an altogether oppressive atmosphere caused by the psychologically difficult premise of child cruelty, violence, rape, incest and brutal murder. It must be said that Saul clearly delights in grabbing hold of the reader and making them feel uneasy. And to start the tale off with doing just that shows balls.
Indeed, Saul knows all too well the effect that including youngsters into brutally violent scenes will cause. And he uses this to its full effect here. It’s hard-hitting and powerful, with a very real-to-life horror lurking behind each of the stomach-churning actions.
Let’s face it, no matter how hardened to horror or ‘violent fiction’ you are; violence towards kids (particularly if it veers towards a sexual nature) is always going to be hard to swallow for the reader. It’s inherent in our nature to be shocked and appalled by it. And for damn good reason! So when you embark upon a novel where it sets off with instantly throwing down just that, it’s likely to start out as a worryingly uncomfortable read for pretty much everyone.
With this beginning scene done and dusted, the novel leaps forward a good hundred years, and takes on a much more cautious pace. The scene and its quaint New England town backdrop, is ever so gradually laid out for the reader. The once prestigious family of the Conger’s established with much care and attention to intricate details. This is very much a tale steeped in ancestral history, and so Saul puts in as much of this as he can from early on, without obviously disrupting the flow of the tale too much.
Saul toys around with unspoken crimes and potentially worrying skeletons-in-the-closet, keeping the reader guessing about what lies behind many of the characters. Young Sarah Conger’s traumatic experience in the woods in particular keeps the reader aching for an insight into what exactly happened that fateful day.
The characterisation throughout the entirety of the tale is particularly strong. Saul knows how to flesh out his characters and make them real, with strong believable dialogue guiding the reader through the character rich storyline. Indeed, the well-developed characters each form an intrinsic element to the overall direction of the tale, with the plot pretty much entirely focussed around the seemingly dysfunctional Conger family.
With its heavy leanings towards particularly ‘real-to-life’ human elements, Saul mixes in a plethora of psychological trauma and its lasting effects, with a slowly creeping supernatural menace. As the tale progresses, this new horror element takes on an increasingly more involved role. And slowly but surely, the novel begins to show its true colours, as a gritty and uncompromising horror novel with a hard-hitting finale waiting up its sleeve.
However, the tale isn’t without its flaws. At times it becomes too meandering and plodding, with barely enough energy sitting behind the plot to keep it trundling along. And it’s the fleshed-out characters that come to the tale’s rescue time and time again. But with some major sagging in the tale’s mid-section, it does feel like the novel could have down with some much sterner editing in its early draft stages.
That said, Saul does manage to reel the reader back in again when it’s most needed. The last quarter of the tale is excellent, leaving a strong imprint of dark and desperate horror that will stay with the reader for years to come (it has with me anyway).
Okay, so the novel may not be the powerful masterpiece that it seems to have been labelled as over the years. It’s strong and purposefully emotive, with a hell of a gritty undertone to the supernatural horror. But it’s still too slow-paced and plodding throughout such a major portion of the novel to be recommended as highly as it seems to have been.
But don’t get me wrong, it’s still a damn good read.
The tale runs for a total of 315 pages.
© DLS Reviews