Punish the Sinners
By John Saul
I have several favorite horror authors—my GO-TO set. Stephen King, Dean Koontz and John Saul. Although, to be truly honest, I really prefer Saul’s later work. Occasionally, however, I will choose to look back at some of John Saul’s earlier books. This is one.
Like so many of his stories, this one starts with a prologue. A little boy is playing in his parent’s bedroom when he hears them coming up the stairs. He hides in the closet. He’s not supposed to be in their room, of course. Unfortunately, he finds himself privy to some very intimate sights and sounds. Suddenly, his older sister bursts onto the scene and murders her parents, in their bed, with an axe!
The real story begins some 30-odd years later. Peter Balsam, our main character, is hired to teach Latin and Psychology at the St. Francis Xavier High School in Neilsville, Washington. The principal of the school, Peter Vernon, is an old friend of Balsam’s. MONSIGNOR Vernon, is NOT the boy Balsam remembers. He is a rigid and cruel man who gives off an air of superiority that Balsam finds upsetting.
I must interrupt myself here to point out that these two main characters have the same first name. I’ve noticed that the author, John Saul, does that a lot in several of his books. In this book—as you’ll see in a moment—there is even a THIRD Peter. OMGOSH! Trying to keep them all straight pulls me, the reader, right out of the story and annoys me to no end. It’s distracting to the point of madness! But, I digress…
As Monsignor Vernon shows Peter Balsam to the class room he’s going to be using for the year, Balsam notices a statue sitting in a cubby-hole in the wall and asks about it. Monsignor tells Balsam that it is a statue of The Society of St. Peter Martyr. The Society of St. Peter Martyr. Monsignor, it appears to Balsam, is highly enamored of St. Peter Martyr. He suggests to Balsam that he join himself and a small group of priests who call themselves The Society of St. Peter Martyr at their next meeting.
As Balsam settles into his teaching regime, he finds himself at odds with parents, the town and even Monsignor and the church. Parents are concerned he’s putting strange ideas into the heads of their children during his psychology class at St. Francis. The town suspects him of being less than moral when he begins to see a Divorcee, socially. (This book, you must remember, was written in the 1970’s.) And, Monsignor begins to question Balsam’s loyalty to himself AND the Catholic church. They have several small verbal skirmishes over doctrine. To make things worse, one of his students attempts to kill herself by slashing her wrists.
As it sometimes happens, following the first child’s failed attempt at suicide, several other girls choose to end their lives and several succeed, in some sort of suicide “contagion”. Suddenly, the town is out to get Peter Balsam.
Monsignor Vernon begins to press Balsam to join the Society of Peter Martyr. It is the only way to clear Balsam of the charges being brought against him, he intimates. Balsam agrees. His first meeting with the other priests is awkward, uncomfortable and just aggravating as Balsam feels himself to be the victim of a modern-day inquisition. However, at subsequent meetings something changes. He remembers going to the meetings, but nothing remains after his arrival! He can’t remember anything. His girlfriend suggests he wears a recording device to the next meeting…
I won’t go any further. I hate spoilers!
I will tell you this. FOR ME…this story was incredibly slow and boring. At least through most of it. The last 150 pages or so picked up speed, more of my interest and a little bit (finally) of that “scary” vibe I’m after in a horror book. However, it seemed to take FOREVER to get to this point. I almost put the book down for good, more than once.
This was NOT one of my favorite John Saul books.
While most Saul books are written for no other reason than just plain scary fun, this one seemed—at least to me—to have a hidden message contained within its prose… a very anti-Catholic or maybe just anti-religion message. That’s okay. People have a right to feel how they feel and if I don’t agree with their opinions I can put the book down or exercise MY right to say I don’t agree. I didn’t/don’t feel the need to do either. Just pointing out an insight.
Unfortunately, what I saw as the true purpose of the story left several gaping holes in the plot of this book. Saul is usually much better at clearing up such things than he was with this story.
If you’re looking for an intellectual read that will keep your mind pondering for days after finishing…don’t look here. If you’re looking for something to keep you busy for a few hours each night before bed, I would say this one might do. Just don’t expect too much.