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John Saul's The Blackstone Chronicles is a series made up of six interlinked novellas that were originally published monthly between January and June 1997. (The publication month printed in the first book is February though each installment appears to have been released the month before the printed date, according to the coming soon notices on the inside covers.) This review is restricted to Part One of that series, looking at the novella as a standalone piece, with incidental comments on the whole. Once I complete the six novellas as they were originally published, I will write an article reviewing the work as a whole.
This first novella in the series opens with introductory italicized text sharing the backstory of a boy being brought to an asylum, separated from his mother, but not from his doll. We are then gathered along with the townsfolk to witness the demolition of that asylum which for nearly a century loomed over the small New Hampshire community of Blackstone, and that will now make way for the construction of a modern commercial complex. That night a figure enters the asylum via a hole made by the ceremonial first demolition strike, and takes from its storage a doll that once belonged to an inmate.
This doll is delivered mysteriously to the house of the McGuires, Bill and the very pregnant Elizabeth, and daughter Megan immediately takes a liking to it. An unusual struggle for the doll develops between mother and daughter, which the doll seems to somehow be perpetuating. This struggle is the most interesting aspect of the book, as it keeps the story hovering between the psychological and the supernatural, but it is unfortunately under-developed and seems even incidental. This idea is a little reminiscent of Ramsay Campbell's little known but good Night of the Claw (St. Martin's Press, 1983), where the supernatural generates the psychological, and while Campbell establishes the supernatural element, Saul in his book skirts it. There is enough evidence that the doll has some kind of supernatural link, though there is no overt supernatural occurrence in the book; everything can be explained rationally. The evidence in the supernatural is the sudden change in the two characters, Elizabeth and Megan, with the appearance of the doll, highlighted by the lack of change in Bill. Perhaps Elizabeth, in her near delivery state, can accommodate such a shift in personality, but for Megan to believe that a doll is communicating telepathically with her is a stretch. There is no indication whatsoever that Megan has experienced any kind of psychological phenomena that would include hearing voices, but instead the entire family is presented as a solid, upstanding family. Elizabeth has been struggling with stresses around her pregnancy, such as the fact that this is her final chance at giving birth to another child, but these details are included for plot purposes only, since it is this pressure that leads to the community's later accepting the eventual events that I will not divulge, but that honestly are fairly predicable.
The story is not terribly original but interesting enough for its briefness. The piece is potentially creepy but the straightforward and light telling leaves it with little impact. The story reads like a young adult novel or televised horror story, with slight creepiness and no real horror. I have previously read only one work by John Saul, the novel Sleepwalk, which at the time I did not care for. Similarly that novel is equal in quality of both writing and plotting as "The Doll," in that it read like young adult fiction, and though it too contained little moments of interest, they appeared spottily throughout the book.
With "The Doll" I was more interested in the side story of the audit being conducted at the Blackstone bank, wherein the lending practices of the bank were being externally scrutinized, a practice that can have dire consequences not only on the bank itself, but on those relying on these loans for employment. This kind of reality is a far greater horror than a life-like doll, and I do hope this storyline is pursued in later segments of the series.
So far I do intend to continue reading the installments as they are quick and the community of Blackstone is interesting enough to keep my interest. Each novella is set up by an object from the asylum, with the exception of the last as it is titled "The Asylum" and hence promises to focus on the building. "The Doll" also presents us with a kind of protagonist in reporter Oliver Metcalf, as he seems to have some sort of psychic link to the building, not to mention a familial link as his father used to run the institution. This detail will likely develop throughout the books and culminate in Part 6.
For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.