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A masterful novel of psychological horror
on 20 January 2003
With Nightshade, John Saul gets back to what he does best, giving birth to a story almost as chilling and compelling as his premier masterpiece Suffer the Children. Forget biomedical experimentation, genetic manipulation, and all of the other external forces that often lie behind Saul's plots; this book marks a return to good old-fashioned madness and horror. Of course, we start with the perfect all-American family-Joan Moore Hapgood, her son Matt, and husband Bill who has always thought of his step-son as his own true son. Suddenly, Joan's grim, bitter, nasty, Alzheimer's-afflicted mother almost burns her own house down and comes to live with the Hapgoods. Emily Moore is obsessed with her daughter Cynthia, the perfect child whom she refuses to believe is never coming back home to her. Immediately, Matt's nights are filled with the horrible nightmares he had not experienced since leaving Emily's home as a child to move to the home of his new step-father. Watching his mother-in-law tearing his happy family apart, Bill simply leaves his wife and son to the misery of Emily's company. A series of tragedies unfolds, affecting not only the family but the entire close-knit community. Matt changes into a haunted young man, seeing suspicion and dislike pointed toward him from everyone he has ever cared about. Misery turns to the ultimate tragedy, and the reader is left to ponder just who is responsible. Is it Matt, who looks guilty in the eyes of everyone else? Is it his aunt Cynthia, whose presence comes to permeate the house and exert an unhealthy influence on Matt's life in spite of the fact that she is long-dead? Or could it be someone or something else?
Saul hits a home run with this novel. Whatever suspicions the reader entertains, the truth is never truly known in spite of its foreshadowing, not until the ultimate conclusion. As the plot progresses, Saul slowly but surely increases the tension, drawing the reader further and further into this fascinating story. One is never really sure what to think about the action as it unfolds. Even when the true source of the horror is revealed a couple of chapters before the end, the heightened sense of expectation and worry for the characters so well-presented and seemingly real continues unabated. To some degree this is a ghost story, but it is better described as psychological horror. Madness makes for a much more compelling villain than outside entities, and that is why Nightshade stands as one of John Saul's most compelling novels. Filled with insanity, ghostly impressions, terror, murder, a bit of blood and gore, and a surprise or two at the end, Nightshade reveals the true talent that resides in the mind of an author too little appreciated by the horror community.