John Saul – The Blackstone Chronicles Part 1 An Eye for an Eye: The Doll (Ballantine, February 1997, 82 p.)
From the top of Blackstone's highest hill the old Blackstone Asylum casts its shadow over the village. Built in the 1980s, the Asylum has stood vacant for decades. But now, the wrecker's ball is about to strike, smashing into stone – and unleashing a terrible evil, an unholy fear long locked within these walls. Soon, strange gifts will begin to appear on the doorsteps of Blackstone's finest citizens. Each bears a mysterious history. Each brings a horrifying power to harm. Each reveals another thread in the suspensefully woven web of …
THE BLACKSTONE CHRONICLES Part 1
The editor of the Blackstone chronicle, Oliver Metcalf, nervously presides over the ceremony to begin demolition of the old Asylum. But the building's fate hangs in the balance as financing problems halt the project. Contractor Bill McGuire, all set to proceed, can't hide his dismay: with a family and another baby on the way, he can't afford delays. Then a package arrives at the McGuires – a beautiful antique doll with long blond hair. His daughter, Megan, wraps her arms around it; this wife Elizabeth, remains suspicious. Who sent the doll? Who is it for? What neither Elizabeth nor Bill can know is that this innocent-looking gift brings with it a murderous menace …
After the success of McDowell's Blackwater and of course King's Last Mile John Saul's publisher jumped on the waggon and did the Blackstone Chronicles. A novel in six parts published monthly. Saul acknowledges the The Green Mile frankly in his foreword. Which is an honest approach.
As with so many books I read 20 years ago I have only a hazy recollection of this. I bought the German edition first, later got the first two of the original. I browsed The Doll before scanning, to refresh my memory, and it didn't blew me away exactly. It is a creepy doll story, rather by the numbers, up to the not very surprising ending. I seem to remember that the conclusion in book 6 was very underwhelming, but plan so scan the whole series, even if part 3-6 are the foreign editions.
I wondered a bit about the blurb. It is a bit long for what is basically a novella long tale.
John Saul – The Blackstone Chronicles Part 2 Twist of Fate: The Locket (Ballantine, March 1997, 82 p.)
Jules Hartwick should be on top of the world. He has a distinguished career as president of the First National Bank of Blackstone, and his lovely daughter will soon be married. But his contentment is shattered: he's under investigation by the Federal Reserve – and that frightening audit threatens the financing of Blackstone Center, which is slated to rise on the site of the old Asylum. And now, late at night, after a lavish dinner party, the Hartwicks receive a mysterious package containing a silver locket. Who sent it? Why? Jules has his own suspicions, as this second sinister gift unleashes a bloodcurdling chain of events …
Onward with the tale. While the prologue is surprisingly cruel, not to mention farfetched, the story is rather bland. Hartwick gets the locket, becomes a delusional paranoic at a snap of the finger and tries to kill his wife. The character from Book 1 gets only mentioned in passing, some new characters are introduced, and it is very slickly written in that typical American style. But compared to its predecessors it is very episodic.
John Saul – The Blackstone Chronicles Part 3 Ashes to Ashes: The Dragon's Flame (Ballantine, April 1997, 86 p.)
The exotic lighter from the flea market shaped like a dragon seems to be the perfect homecoming gift for cousin Andrea, Rebecca Morrison thinks.
Andrea can use some support. She left the house of her mother Martha in anger, and her mother is not thrilled of the return of her broke daughter. But what should have been a welcome gift, will be Andrea's doom …
From now on there will be the German edition and blurb. The text is much more vague than the original. Also they didn't bother with the long title version.
Rebecca Morrison is Martha's niece and living in her house as the poor relative and typical Cinderella (but without her guts). Rebecca who was introduced in part 1, is a ridiculous naïve librarian without any self-esteem or backbone, while Martha is a religious nutcase. Think Carrie White's mother insane. So Martha is furious when Andrea comes back home pregnant and wants to abort. (Which she does.) In the usual prologue another pregnant girl was put by her parents into the asylum against her will (in the 50s), which is one of those horror movie asylums right out of every Hollywood asylum you can think of. From House on Haunted Hill to Nightmare on Elm Street. After the staff took the baby away directly after birth, seemingly to put it into the oven because it has died, the nameless girl – which is later revealed as Martha's sister who sinned – took the dragon lighter and burned herself to death with it. The villain of the tale, who lurks in the asylum, has a secret shrine and sends the cursed objects, is still unknown.
But while still nobody of the citizens gets what is happening in Blackstone in the last half year with people going murderously crazy, protagonist Oliver Metcalf, the editor of the local paper and son of the deceased last director of the asylum, whose twin-sister died under mysterious circumstances when she was four, has no memory of his childhood and gets ever increasing headaches and blackouts. Is he the madman?
While following the established formula and not bringing the tale much forward, this one is more like the Saul we know and love or hate. All characters are unlikable or nasty psychos, and the only nice person like Rebecca is too stupid to live. Saul really makes crazy Martha shine, right down to her hot end. But the character is such a cardboard cliché that it is difficult to care. You just know how this will end. With 80 pages of not too small print it is at least a fast read.
John Saul – The Blackstone Chronicles Part 4 In the Shadow of Evil: The Handkerchief (Ballantine, April 1997, 86 p.)
While searching for old asylum files Oliver Metcalf finds an old beautiful handkerchief. The initial "R" gives him the idea to give it to Rebecca Morrison as a gift, she has just suffered a family tragedy. But who was the original owner? Can it give Rebecca some comfort? Or will it be the reason for more tears?
Again the short back-cover text. In the prologue the handkerchief belongs to another insane woman in the horror-asylum who suffers from terrifying hallucinations, her meal transforms into maggotts, etc.. When she is difficult because she doesn't want to eat, she gets the rough treatment – a tube into the stomach and four weeks of forcible feeding while being tied up. When she gets released of her bonds, she hangs herself.
Oliver Metcalf, our newspaper man, who is still suffering from memory loss and disturbing visions of the asylum, is checking the files of his father for the first time ever and is aghast. Seems he also was a torturer in a white coat. Why has he committed suicide when Oliver was still a child? Has he given Oliver an electro-shock treatment after his twin-sister died?
Rebecca, who has sympathy for each and everyone, has found shelter at a collegue. But Germaine is living with her ill mother, who one day couldn't walk any longer, is confined to a wheelchair and makes her life a miserable hell. Welcome Rebecca, the new maid, who swallows every abuse and says even thank you. Germaine takes the handkerchief from her and promptly suffers horrible hallucinations. It ends bloody and deadly for her and her mother. Germaine hides under her mother's house-elevator and gets crushed by her mother, the mother suffers a stroke when noticing what the squelch was from. At the end Rebecca seems to get kidnaped.
Basically this is the same story as the story before, except that Oliver Metcalf seems to wake up to his condition and the renovation of the asylum, which was the trigger for everything, gets a new momentum as the new bank director after the death of Jules Hartwick in part 2 wants to carry on. Naïve Rebecca getting from Mad Martha to even worse Germaine is a bit repetitive, but is nicely mean spirited. Saul is very inconsistent as a writer. Broad as a barn cliché writing which put a soap opera to shame stands next to some surprisingly unflinching portraits and a bit of gore. Which makes for some frustrating reading. Still, this is more for casual horror readers than the fans.
John Saul – The Blackstone Chronicles Part 5 Day of Reckoning: The Stereoscope (Ballantine, April 1997, 84 p.)
Attorney Ed Becker discovers a stereoscope in an old cabinet he gets from the asylum. His daughter Amy is thrilled. With the antique toy she can see in included photos in 3-D. But something is not right: All photos show Eds own house at the time of his grandfather. It seems to a be a strange coincidence, but soon the pictures cause horrible, too realistic nightmares …
Increasingly spoilerish, I have to confess.
And again we get the prologue from the asylum. This time it is a psychotic boy who is manacled in his cell after killing his sister. His only toy is the stereoscope with the pictures of his home. At the end he gets a lobotomy.
Rebecca has really been kidnapped, nobody finds her. She seems to be hidden in the asylum and thanks to duct-tape has not seen her captor once. Oliver Metcalf's old uncle Harvey Conally is introduced; he is the last of the Conally's who founded the city and build the asylum. He was the brother-in-law of Oliver's father and took him in and raised him after the father committed suicide. He knows more then he lets on, while after the tragedy in the last part talk of a curse makes the round in the city.
Attorney Ed Becker is around since book 1. He gets prophetic nightmares, in which he is haunted by the victims of the mass-murderers he defended in court. He manages to kill his daughter's puppy in the drive of his house with the car, which puts a strain on the family, later the house explodes after a nightly gas-leak. In the last dream he is hanged, when he wakes, he falls down the stairs and breaks his neck.
While the tale finally gets some tempo, the hallucination/nightmare formula wears thin. Becker's nightmares are nicely gory scenes, still it is a bit lame. The idea with the stereoscope was good, but feels underdeveloped. (This is not alone the writers fault, when reading it I thought immediately of the similar scene in House on Haunted Hill, where a device like that drives one of the victims nearly insane; it was very well realized and this was not.)
The last part really has to deliver to save this, basically we got 5 times the same plot while the background stays strangely underdeveloped given the length and is a bit – or a lot, depending on the reader - underwhelming.
John Saul – The Blackstone Chronicles Part 6 Asylum (Ballantine, April 1997, 97 p.)
Somebody delivers a mysterious package to Harvey Conally. When Harvey discovers a cut throat razor, he knows that he can't hide the truth before his nephew Oliver Metcalf any longer. So Oliver gets confronted with his gruesome past, which maybe will break him and Blackstone …
So this is the end of which amounts to 500 pages in the Arrow omnibus.
More spoilers than usual will follow: you have been advised.
Saintly Rebecca still is held prisoner in the asylum and has never seen the man thanks to the duct-tape over her eyes. Reprter and editor Oliver Metcalf is mulling over the terrible things which happen in the city, while his uncle Harvey Conally, the last of the descendants of the city's founders and builder of the asylum, also gets a present like the former victims. So comes the first of many flashbacks. Harvey hated Oliver's father, who married his sister which died giving birth to twins. When the kids were four, Harvey is summoned to the asylum. Seems Oliver and his sister Mallory were taking a bath and Oliver cut the throat of his sister while playing with a razor, which all is hushed up. Uncle Harvey never said a word to poor Oliver who has repressed all memories of this. After remebering, Harvey just dies.
Oliver finds his dying uncle who raised him in after the suicide of his dad. His last words and the razor finally jog Oliver's memory. Back in the asylum he remembers how he killed his sister with the blade. How his father tortured him in the asylum with electroshocks, made him a witness to all the stuff which happened in the prologues and conditioned him to believe that he "is a bad boy" who killed his own sister. The sudden memory is overwhelming, Oliver suffers one of his blackouts.
Meanwhile Rebecca gets thrown into a bathtub by her kidnapper; he wants to drown her. Big surprise, it is Oliver, who was the lurking villain all the time!
He was conditioned by his father to get revenge one day on all who slighted him by giving them the cursed objects or something. But when he tries to drown his beloved Rebecca, the splashing water gives Oliver a breakthrough and he remembers the truth: in a fit of rage his father hit Mallory with the razor because she splashed him from the tub, and slit her throat. Afterwards he made his son the scapegoat and tortured him with his pychiatric methodes until the kid believed it himself. Shattered to the core the now clear-headed Oliver stops killing Rebecca.
After saving Rebecca, Oliver confesses the whole story to the sheriff and the doctor, that he distributed the objects and kidnapped Rebecca to kill her. But Rebecca adamantly says that he saved her from the evil unknown kidnapper and is her hero. The sheriff decides to believe Rebecca, the doctor says that Oliver is confused because of the repressed memories. All is well that ends well.
Harvey Conally gets a funeral, while the gossip in the city makes him to the culprit behind the mysterious deaths. Oliver and Rebecca are now an item. End of story.
Oh boy, where to begin? While the former parts begin with some flashbacks which to be fair would make American Horror Story: Asylum proud, this last part implodes with the ridiculous and idiotic happy end. That the suspicion that Oliver with his headaches and blackouts is the crazy villain would be in most novels just a red herring, but here actually proves to be true, is super-lame but can be forgiven.
But the whole cursed objects out of Friday the Thirteenth: The Series don't make any kind of sense at the end. Why are they cursed, how are they cursed, why do they work (even if all the nameless asylum victims in the prologues are revealed as ancestors or relatives of the contemporary victims) – this is never spoken of. It is just as it is, nobody gives a damn. Over-explaining the supernatural is one of the worst sins a horror writer can do in my book, but this is laughable.
Even worse is the ending when Rebecca just choose to ignore Oliver's confession to be with him and the authorities blindly believe her because the whole town just knows that saintly and chaste Rebecca "never lies". So who can blame Oliver to say okay, why not. We are all victims here.
This is a frustrating book. So many good set-pieces, at times some surprisingly nasty writing for such a mainstream horror – the child-abuse/torture is as in your face as possible -, just to ruin it with this far-fetched nonsense about some half-baked revenge via proxy for slights which never even gets established. Even if the last scene is a funeral, this is a massive disappointment which wants to make you hurl the book out of the window.
At the end Saul thanks Stephen King again for even helping him while he was writing this. This was the third and last of these serial novels. I have to admit that this was the easiest read through of a 500+ pages novels in ages, Saul sure can do smooth writing. The big print sure did help also, you could browse without problems.
But where The Last Mile was a solid constructed piece of work which actually took advantage of the format and Blackwater was thanks to its epic tale spanning 60 years and its length – the reprints have 900 pages – not that dependant on cliff hangers and more a novel broken into six parts, The Blackstone Chronicles give the impression that the writer made it up while writing it and didn't knew how to end this properly. The novel is overwhelmingly episodic in nature, very one-note and in too broad strokes to really work. The background with the city remains sketchy at best, most characters are thoroughly underdeveloped to be something other than cardboard.
While I really am not advocating the usual end of this kind of tales – the villain/victim gets shot or falls into the woodchipper while the girl is saved – everything would have been better than this idiotic and even in a novel about curses unbelievable happy end.