November 19, 1990 12:00 PM

by John Saul

Secret Cove, an otherwise lovely if isolated spot on the coast of Maine, has a problem shedding the horrors of its distant past. It seems that about 100 years ago, during the August Moon Ball, a quiet servant girl lost her grip on reality and committed a deed so violent, so ringed with terror, that residents shiver at its mention. Through the years the servant’s unspeakable act has become the kind of saga that is retold at camp-fire gatherings, around flickering bedtime candlelight and wherever else children like to hear stories that scare them blind. The fearsome act has mellowed into folklore—until the day shy little Melissa Holloway unlocks her attic door and makes a new friend named D’Arcy.

Saul (Suffer the Children, Creature) knows how to tell horrible little tales. While his horror-arousing skills would place him a distant third behind Stephen King and Dean Koontz, Saul keeps his plots tighter than either of the anointed masters of the genre.

Much like King, Saul often narrates through the eyes of an innocent, or at least seemingly innocent child. In Second Child, as in all his work, Saul’s characters are usually one-dimensional fairy-tale caricatures. There is the wicked stepmother and half sister, manipulating Melissa to their advantage; there is the naive father, blind to all but the obvious. Saul draws his scenes with a B-movie eye. The tale offers little challenge in figuring out the surprise twist in advance of the blood-soaked end.

But these are horror fiction flaws we have come to expect, and Second Child’s compensations are many. As you’re reading, imagine a full moon and the tale being told around a camp fire deep in the forest: Saul spins a most enjoyable tale. (Bantam, $14.95)

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