Monday, April 5, 2010

The Blackstone Chronicles by John Saul

The Blackstone Chronicles
by John Saul
Copyright 1997
Six Volumes - serialized

Recalling the age of Dickens, when novels were published in serialized booklets, Stephen King published a serialized novel in 1996 called The Green Mile. Following King’s success, John Saul published his own serialized novel called The Blackstone Chronicles. While King is the superior writer and his story is better, Saul makes better use of the serialization process to tell his story.

Saul's story centers on an abandoned asylum in the town of Blackstone. Unspeakable horrors were committed there in its 100 year history. Unfortunately for the mentally ill of the last century, many of Saul's fictional tortures are based in fact.

The first five installments are named for relics from the asylum, delivered to carefully selected Blackstone residents by an unknown and unseen presence that lurks in the abandoned building. Those relics visit upon their recipients the mental illness that afflicted their original owners.

The central character in the story is Oliver Metcalf, publisher of the town newspaper and a direct descendant of the asylum's owner and operator. Each installment opens with the history of the relic and the ultimate demise of its original owner.

The first installment is called An Eye for an Eye: The Doll. This package is delivered to the family of the contractor who envisions redeveloping the asylum into a shopping center. Soon after the antique doll is found on their doorstep, his wife miscarries. She soon covets the doll as if it were own child. Her insanity leads to her family's demise.

The next installment is entitled Twist of Fate: The Locket . The locket containing a small lock of hair is delivered to the town banker who plans to finance the conversion of the asylum into a shopping center. The banker is under investigation for not properly collatoralizing his loans. The soft-hearted banker hates to repossess belongings and foreclosing on homes. His charity creates problems for his bank. His charitable heart hardens quickly after he finds the locket in the snow outside his house. He starts to believe that his bank employees are scheming against him and his wife cheating on him. As his paranoia grows, he ultimately destroys himself.

Installment three is Ashes to Ashes: The Dragon's Flame. Oliver Metcalf's girlfriend, Rebecca purchases an antique lighter to give to her prodigal cousin who is returning home after her boyfriend left her pregnant and alone in New York City. Rebecca's aunt is religious and does not approve of her daughter being in her home, but feels it is her duty as a mother to guide her daughter back to God. Her daughter doesn't want any part of it and has an abortion. Meanwhile, as she lights more and more cigarettes with the antique lighter, she becomes increasingly hostile and irrational. Fire is her demise.

Book four is entitled In the Shadow of Evil: The Handkerchief. With her aunt and ward dead, Rebecca goes to live with the town librarian and her domineering mother. Rebecca receives an ornate handkerchief from Oliver who found it in his attic. The spinster librarian -- a cruel woman -- takes it from Rebecca and gives it to her elderly mother as a gift. Mom, being every bit as nasty as her daughter, rejects the gift and gives it back. Delusions of snakes and insects pursue the librarian through her home and the library until she meets her end in a very difficult position.

The fifth relic arrives in book five entitled Day of Reckoning: The Stereoscope. Attorney Ed Becker, who is conducting the legal work to convert the asylum into a shopping center, spots an antique dresser in one of its rooms. He brings it home to restore and finds in one of its drawers an antique stereoscope and six photographs to go with it. All of the photographs are of the interior of his home as it appeared 100 years ago. As Ed enjoys the antique viewer, he begins to feel guilt for his life's work. Once a criminal defense attorney, he had successfully defended more than a dozen clients who went on to murder more people. As the stereoscope provides a window on the past, Ed's past comes to haunt him more and more. The victims of his life's work start to visit and, while Ed survives, his life is dramatically altered for the worse. As Rebecca is leaving the latest scene of horror, she is kidnapped and taken to the asylum to dwell with its lone, evil resident.

The series finale is entitled Asylum. The residents of Blackstone are terrified as tragedy after tragedy has befallen their town over the last five months. Oliver, always frightened by the asylum that loomed on a hill above his house, finally enters the building to find Rebecca and confront the evil perpetrated on him and others in its foreboding rooms. Long forgotten memories of his sister's "accidental" death and his father's psychological practice resurface. Meanwhile, the town constable discovers the clue he needs to identify the entity that dwells within the asylum and moves to get there before Rebecca meets her doom. The story's climax is outstanding.

Saul did much better than King at serializing because each of Saul's books stood alone as a story where The Green Mile was a continuous story told in installments. Saul -- unlike King -- seldom writes postscripts to his novels. At the end of Blackstone, he describes how he developed the idea of serialization after King's success and the assistance King provided him in publishing over a six month period. Writing serialized books is a challenge because the first part of the story is already in the reader's hands while the author struggles to find the correct ending. It's also easy to make continuity mistakes and Blackstone has a few -- as does The Green Mile. Saul acknowledges these and notes that they are corrected in the fully bound edition that came out after the serialization was complete.

Saul's books are usually entirely plot driven. Characters and settings are developed adequately for the purpose of the story, but lack the depth of King's characters, or even Dean Koontz's characters. (Unfortunately, all of Koontz's characters are the same). In his postscript, Saul talks about how he fell in love with Blackstone and its inhabitants as he wrote and it shows in his development of his characters and the town. This makes The Blackstone Chronicles one of Saul's very best works.

I have the six installments as they were originally published. While the words are the same, I think this is the only way to properly read the story. As I wrote, each book stands as an independent story. To read it as one book will change that flavor.

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