Thursday, May 15, 2014

John Saul: The Paperback Covers

Disclaimer: I have never read a word of John Saul's paperback originals. He's not an author I think of as horror, but you wouldn't know it by the stacks of his titles in used bookstores everywhere. He's one of those boring brand-name writers whose derivative potboilers instantly hit the top of the bestseller lists (or at least was), but he's never been part of the horror community, nor has he ever even been nominated for a Bram Stoker award and he certainly doesn't show up at horror conventions. Saul's work isn't collectible because there are millions of copies of his books everywhere, no specialty publisher is putting out $100 hardcover reprints of his early novels, and no major movies have been made from anything he wrote. In a 1990 interview with Stanley Wiater for Dark Dreamers, he reveals he's only seen two horror films and never reads horror fiction. Errr....

To me Saul is simply a hack whose publishers slotted him into the formulaic baby-in-peril/possession crap subgenres, with no relation to our actual beloved horror fiction tradition (market-based tradition, sure!). The Gothic romance novel, which had been so popular in the late '60s and early '70s, was on the wane as more modern and/or more graphic books and movies like Rosemary's Baby, Audrey Rose, and The Exorcist - and, yes, a little thing called Carrie - became enormously successful; looks like Saul's paperback originals sprang from these wells, amping up Gothic-y terrors while still appealing to a readership made up mostly of housewives and teenage babysitters. None of Saul's titles never even came close to appealing to me!

Saul always seemed to me more akin to a Mary Higgins Clark or V.C. Andrews than a Stephen King, and I always hated selling his shit to self-professed "horror" fans when I was working in bookstores while better books went unbought. And the nursery rhyme-style titles alone!

I've resisted featuring him on TMHF for all these reasons. Sure, it's prejudiced to bitch about Saul without having read him, but I'm speaking of my impressions based on years of working in bookstores and reading horror and understanding something about how publishers market their books, particularly during the paperback horror boom. Saul's books come across as mere product, not as authentic horror fiction.

But my archival impulse is strong, and the paperback cover art is so perfectly vintage, that in the interest of completion, I give you this John Saul paperback covers post, with his titles from 1977 to 1988 (his covers got a lot more boring after that). These are all first editions, first from Dell and then after he became successful, Bantam even published a couple in hardcover first. Nathaniel (1984) has my, uh, favorite cover art here.

Unloved cover by Lisa Falkenstern


Josh Caporale said...

I like that you have shared the covers to John Saul's work. I will kindly have to disagree 110% about his status in the world of horror fiction.

He is not mentioned in discussion with other authors and he has deemed himself as a thriller writer (just as Koontz deems himself as "mystery" and McCammon did not want to be categorized as horror), but he writes material that grabs you. I read "When the Wind Blows" back in 2011 and it was a page turner that kept you up at night. I felt for the victims (in this case children, or specifically the orphan girl) and felt outrage toward the psychotics in the woman that takes her in and how her mother wants no part of it.

I would highly suggest giving a work from John Saul's an attempt. While the covers are catchy, dismissing that is a conclusion that should not be jumped.

Kevin F said...

He was one of my guilty pleasures back in the day. Granted, some of those books really are pretty disposable (looking at the covers brings it all back).

Speaking of guilty pleasures. I just loved Clare McNally back in the day. Ghost House and Ghost House Revenge were among my faves.

Jonathan Stover said...

I finally read a recent Saul (The Devil's Labyrinth) and found it mostly fine. Certainly better than some of the same 'plain style' writers beloved by a lot of horror readers (I'm thinking especially of Richard Laymon), and without Laymon's recurrent, creepy sexual torture scenes that always seem to push his books into soft-core porn.

Craig Johnston said...

Saul is a guilty pleasure. He is completely middle-of-the-road and has never broken new ground. Still, I somehow find a few days out of a year to take in one of his books for the pure joy of being put into a simpler world and era (you can sometimes experience the oddest sensation that you've been transported back to the early 80s simply by reading any given one of them). There actually was a movie made from CRY FOR THE STRANGERS back in '83. It was made-for-TV, starred Patrick Duffy, and has received virtually no cult following, even among nostalgic TV I guess that doesn't help the John Saul plight any. Still, I'm glad you included him for just this once.

Brian Schwartz said...

I enjoy Saul as well. He often relies on the formula of the possessed teen, but when he breaks out of that formulaic writing, he produces some really good work.

One of his good, early works is Punish the Sinners which was way ahead of its time in examining the Catholic church and some of its practices.

Other than The Homing, I've never read a bad Saul book and I've read them all. But he's never produced anything as great as many King novels nor as great as Koonz's Watchers.

Broonage said...

I don't know how you can write this post without actually reading his work??? That's just silly

Rob K. said...

I will back up Will. I read 4 or 5 of his books back in the day and thought they were just junk. He was particularly lousy with dialogue, as I recall.

REX said...

I agree that Saul is a middling farmer toiling in fields that were already creatively fallow when he started spewing his seed. Though originality was hardly ever King's strong suit, even if he did gladly take on the mantle for Horror Fiction in the industry.

But your attack on Saul is awfully vitriolic, most of that seemingly based on the fact that he never embraced the Horror label. This sounds too much like the kind of insular, clannish attitude that gives horror fans a bad name, and dooms them to seeking satisfaction from tired tropes and overly-familiar authors instead of seeking out the lifeblood without which the genre must die. After all, Barker didn't exactly dote on the horror fandom, did he? And where would his literary brand of horror have gotten in America without King's blessing?

Enjoy your knowledge and incisiveness. Keep an open mind.

kevdawg55 said...

Before I talk about Saul, I do think many of his covers are great, and can see why they sold well when the horror boom hit in late 70's to early 80's. I actually own almost all of his books (except for 4 or 5) because I have found all of them at thrift stores and can never resist book for a dollar or less (I paid ten cents for Second Child)

Is Saul horror? I've read four of his books (Second Child, Black Creek Crossing, Gaurdian, and House of Reckoning), and though I don't really find them scary, if one had to place Saul into just one category, it would have to be horror, because the next closest thing would be thriller, and when I think of that word I think of James Patterson (yuck).

Is Saul a great writer? Certainly not in my opinion, although of the four books I've read I liked 3of them. I read Second Child first, and actually really enjoyed it, despite the writing being very cookie-cutter-ish and simple. It had a great beginning, had one truly sickening scene, and overall was a decent book.
Black Creek Crossing, my second Saul read, is easily one of my least favorite books ever. I mean it was awful. Picture reading a Goosebump book after reading a great King novel and compare the two. Not only was it so cliche in general, with no surprises, but being only my second read from John Saul I noticed several elements and scenes that were exactly the same as Second Child.
Gaurdian was decent, mainly because it's not only about the kids, and House of Reckogning was by no means amazing, but worth the $1 I paid for it at the thrift store.

My main problem with Saul is that the plots of so many of his books sound so much alike. At least seventy-five percent of his books involve "An ancient horror unleashed" or "The town seemed so peaceful, but now . . . " and a bunch of them literally say "100 years ago." On top of that, almost all of them are the same size, right around 380 pages or so in paperback, and I'd bet most of them are within five thousand words of each other, where someone like King will write The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon all the way up to It.
I'm actually really looking forward to reading The Blackstone Chronicles. My trade paperback ($1 at a library sale) is a really nice looking book, the ratings are good on Amazon, and unlike every single one of his books, this one actually is pretty lengthy, somewhere around 530 pages.

All that being said, I'll read one of his books every six months or so, because there's nothing wrong with an easy-reading enjoyable story, even if I'm certain there's no new ground being broken. There's just something about his books that once in a while, I'm totally in the mood for him, and after a couple days I move on.

With all the books you've read, why not invest the eight hours or so it'll take to read one of his books? Who knows right?

Jaie said...

Lots of Saul reads the same every so often, but sometimes, boy, do the stories grab you, looking at these covers brought back nearly every storyline of these "potboilers". I do agree with some of the others, give these a try, Saul was/is no worse than some of the other formulamatic books I'm seeing in your wonderful resource blog.

Suffer the Children, Nathaniel, they really are excellent in their own way, you see several here saying "guilty pleasure" or that they set aside time to re-read and enjoy these again. Much like the Blackwater books for me, I grab these up every few years and voraciously read a few, just to take me back.

I do agree with Rex, some of your opinion here seems to be based on how Saul sees himself, and IMO, the "Flowers in the Attic"-esque covers and presentation from the publishers of Saul. He is horror even if he doesn't see it that way, but it is more horror in the sense of "thriller" or horrifying situations that (mostly) children find themselves in in Saul's books. There are psychological and often paranormal plotlines going on, mostly in the form of old evils happening hundreds of years before recreating themselves in modern times.

Give Saul a small chance, and then come back and give us a review, a before and after if you will. Chances are, you really won't care for the books (read any of the ones you pictured, they're all decent) but yes, this is a writer that cranks out a formula book, but really, is that any different than any of the others of this genre?

Anthony W said...

I cannot believe the things said about Saul in this article. Especially from someone who has NEVER read his work. I felt disrespected and i'm not even the author. I love horror/psych thrillers. From Edgar Allen(my favorite) to Stephen King...the undisputed king.I love them so I won't call his works my guilty pleasures because i genuinely like and enjoy reading them. When i first stumbled across his books at our local library i went with the intentions of of renting out horror but i wanted something and someone different than the same old same old. After reading the book it was like a breath of fresh air. i couldn't believe there was other authors besides the ones EVERYONE already knows about. I'm always shocked when i meet another horror fanatic and i ask them about Saul and they've either never heard of him or never read his work. Thats sad. Some of the best writers and books are in the bargain bin. I've come across dozens of books, not all horror that was dusty in the dollar bin. thinking to myself, how did this not catch on? Every writer writes different, and as a reader you understand that and read for the mood you're in. If you want more blood and gore then you go to Clive. If you're in the mood for some twisted and sick horror setting from some desolate town in Maine, go to Stephen. The majority of authors people think are great are one hit wonders or overrated. No, he doesn't have any great silver screen adaptations of an any of his works, but thats not to say they couldn't be made into one. Plenty of his books could be horrifying if they hit the big screen. I personally think the books are page turners, and the fact that most are done without demons, devils, vampires and monsters is very impressive. I root for him because i honestly feel he should be up there in the ranks with the upper echelon. but i also love the fact he's not. it's very typical for someone to say they're a horror fan and say they've read a sStephen King novel or short story, who hasn't? But you know you've met a real reader and fan of horror when you ask them about the rarely read authors and they can give you an honest opinion be it good or bad based on their genuine love for the genre and not that of the masses. So for all of you John Sauls out there, keep writing. Some of us are looking forward to a break from the monotonous.

Ginny Carlisle said...

You've "never read a word" of John Saul, but you hate him.


What, did he owe you money or something? Did he sleep with your... "housewife"... or maybe your... "babysitter"?


Julianne Hannes said...

At least read Second Child, about a bastard daughter killing her mother by burning the house down in Cathy Ames form all to live with her father she obsessed about and destroy his child from his second marriage, her half sister (who is the overweight town outcast), all so she could have her dad to herself. Oh yeah, and she kills a lot people for shits and giggles and the idiot town blames the outcast sister and the outcast sister becomes crazy and thinks she's possessed by a ghost and killed them when really she's blacking out because her sister keeps drugging her. You keep waiting for her to kill her sister but the real horror is she's actually slowly killing her. It's not a whodunit either, the readers know from the start it's the sister and that the outcast is innocent and there is no supernatural monster but instead a monster all too real in the form of an obsessive teen girl who wants attention. It's gaslighting horror where madness is a fate worse than death.

Erin @ Paperback Stash said...

Ah, those covers, have to like those.

I've read a few of his stuff but nothing impressive. I have a whole box of his books to read, though no telling when I'll get to them.

Padded Cell said...

Richard Matheson wrote a screenplay based on John Saul's book "Creature."

I might have to Google it in case the script was leaked to the internet.

The only John Saul book I read is "Comes the Blind Fury." It is definitely horror. The writing wasn't bad, but the story wasn't interesting enough for me to recommend it.

I'll eventually try John Saul again, though. I don't think the book was any worse than, say, "The Amulet" by Michael McDowell.

(I like McDowell, but I don't really like The Amulet.)

Ink'd Kaiju Dude said...

I remember reading several of Saul's books as a teenager. Yes, most followed a similar formula, but I found them entertaining.