John Saul has had success as a writer of popular horror fiction
for over four decades. He has maintained his popularity by
continuously applying the elements of horror and conflicted
characterization that signifies this genre. With HOUSE OF
RECKONING, his latest effort, Saul returns to this familiar
landscape and once again features his signature element: the
High school student Sarah Crane is lamenting the loss of her
mother to cancer six months earlier. This tragedy has crippled her
father, Ed, and has forced him to seek solace at the bottom of the
bottle. And as if things weren’t bad enough, his alcohol
abuse serves as the catalyst for two horrific events: the
manslaughter of a fellow bar patron during a drunken brawl, and the
injuring of Sarah in a drunk driving accident. The former deed
places Ed in prison and Sarah in foster care.
Sarah eventually is taken in by the Garvey family. Ironically,
her foster father Mitch happens to be a prison guard where Ed is
being held. The Garveys are staunchly (if not hypocritically)
religious, and Sarah does not fit in well there. Furthermore, she
must face the constant taunts of her new high school classmates,
who mock both her permanent limp and her murderer father. The only
student with whom she is able to connect is another outcast, Nick
Dunnigan, a delusional schizophrenic.
Sarah also finds comfort in an art class, taught by a unique
character named Miss Bettina Phillips. Bettina resides alone with
several dogs and cats in Shutters Mansion, a place that once served
as an insane asylum. In eerie fashion, she is able to channel
feelings from Bettina’s home, and she begins to paint images
of Shutters and some of its less-than-friendly past inhabitants.
Additionally, while Sarah is painting these unfamiliar images, Nick
is having visions of his own that involve acts of violence and
terror stemming from the dark heart of the old asylum.
As these events begin to unfold, the Garvey family prohibits
Sarah from speaking with Bettina outside of class and labels her a
“witch.” In similar fashion, Nick’s father
won’t allow Nick to maintain a friendship with his new
classmate and forbids his mentioning of Shutters or Bettina. Why do
these adults and other members of the town seem to fear Bettina and
Shutters so fiercely? What sordid secrets are they trying so
desperately to hide?
At the heart of the novel is the answer to these questions, as
Shutters contains more than just Bettina and her animal comrades.
It also houses the history of Warwick, and the town’s secrets
and sins. The time for “reckoning” is now upon them as
Sarah and Nick become the keys to unlocking the strange doors found
inside Shutters and learning that not all past memories are
Although HOUSE OF RECKONING wraps itself up a little too
quickly, the journey to the conflicted climax is worth the
trip. John Saul is at his best when he gets inside the heart
and mind of his teenaged characters, and the team of Sarah Crane
and Nick Dunnigan firmly represents teen angst at its darkest and
most dangerous. This is a perfectly eerie tale presented just in
time for the Halloween season.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on January 22, 2011