Thursday, July 10, 2008

In the Dark of the Night

Warning : spoilers abound.

I picked up a copy of John Saul’s In the Dark of the Night from the library a few days ago. Most of Saul’s thirty-three horror novels share the same elements – children or teenagers in danger from evil stirring in a small town, but a few are real standouts. One of my favorites is Second Child, where everything, from the characters to the supernatural element to the title, works together to make an excellent story. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen with In the Heat of the Night.

The main characters of Second Child are Melissa, who’s intelligent and good-hearted but shy and plump, and her older sister Teri, who’s beautiful and self-confident (and who plans on being an only child very soon). I’ll bet you saw the conflict even before you read the part in parentheses. In contrast, the main character of Night (I’m not typing all that out again) is Eric, who likes hanging out with his friends and doesn’t like a bully in the small town. Not too much character or conflict there.

I don’t think Mr Saul had the space to develop Eric, though, given that there were so many other point-of-view characters in the story. There’s Eric’s two friends, Eric’s mother, Eric’s would-be girlfriend, three women in the small town, the local sherriff, the town bully, the bully’s friend, the killer, some random woman who’s killed at the end and even Eric’s cat. And those are just the ones I can remember. As a result, I couldn’t connect with any of the characters.

In Second Child, the characters came together and the plot that followed was believable and compelling, since it grew from their personalities. In Night, the plot is propelled by objects that once belonged to serial killers, which wasn’t as interesting. A psychologist studying ways to treat the criminally insane bought items like Jack the Ripper’s bag of surgical scalpels (maybe he left them to Scotland Yard in his will). The objects still have a psychic energy about them, so the psychologist takes them apart. Seven years later, though, he has disappeared, so his house is rented out to Eric’s family. Eric and his friends find the objects hidden in the house and, feeling the psychic energy tingle through them, start to put the objects back together. Each time they do so, someone dies, evidently killed by the objects.

While this is an interesting premise, it left the book without a real antagonist. Sure, there’s a killer, but he’s a mental patient, and the ghosts of various serial killers made him do it. He didn't have a plan of any sort in mind. Since the psychic energy makes the boys put the objects together, their own personalities don’t play a role in events (i.e. nothing like Stephen King’s brilliant “Apt Pupil”). And with at least four examples of serial killer memorabilia in the story, there wasn’t much space for them either.

The end of Night was especially difficult to believe, since the axe-wielding mental patient charges a crowd of people who are enjoying the Fourth of July fireworks. Keep in mind that there’s been one grotesque unsolved murder in town already. As the axe-wielding guy cuts down one person after another, the rest of the crowd continues to look up at the fireworks, unaware that people are screaming and dying nearby. After twenty-four people die, Eric and his friends wrestle the killer down, but I had already disengaged from the slasher-movie finale by then. As a reader, the deaths of two dozen people whom I don’t know aren’t going to affect me as badly as the death of one person whom I do. Quantity isn’t superior to quality here.

The final straw for me was the style. Saul has always written in one-sentence or one-phrase paragraphs to build suspense, but in this book, this technique was used throughout. Since suspense cannot be maintained at the same high level through the entire book, the technique stops working sooner or later, and worse still, it draws attention to itself.

The smell from the kitchen greeted Eric as he opened his bedroom door. He stood at the top of the stairs, rubbing his eyes, listening to his parents talking with his sister as they made breakfast.

A breakfast of waffles.

Now imagine the entire book being written in this style, with certain words being emphasized in the follow-up paragraph.


Like that.

It comes off as artificial.

And repetitive.

Very repetitive.

I’ll probably still keep reading John Saul’s books – they’re short and crisp and can be genuinely moving, since in previous novels, at least one sympathetic character would die in each book. That’s what I remember and like about them, not the one-sentence paragraphs or a high body count.

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