“Suffer the Children” by John Saul


One hundred years ago in the town of Port Arbello, a terrible crime was committed. A young girl named Elizabeth Conger, the youngest daughter in a prominent family was murdered. Now, in the modern day (1977), the “Conger curse” still looms, and children are starting to disappear. Jack Conger and his wife Rose must find out what is happening to protect their own children, Sarah and Elizabeth — the latter of whom bears a striking resemblance to her murdered ancestor of the same name.

John Saul has been a prolific horror writer for the past forty some years. Suffer the Children is his debut book, and the first one of his that I’ve read. It is a pretty fast and engaging story, but also extremely bleak. The sadistic violence against children makes quite a few of the situations especially disturbing. But, this is a horror novel, and I can’t get mad at the attempt to terrorize the reader anymore than I could get mad at a comedy for being too funny — however, some scenes are a bit over the top for what the story calls for and cross the lines of good taste. However, this book was entertaining in a very schlocky 70’s kind of way, and as I was reading I was thinking what a missed opportunity it was that we never got an TV adaptation of Suffer the Children from Dan Curtis. The story of a small town in the 1970s being visited by a vengeful ghost of the past would have been perfect, and well within Dan’s wheelhouse.

But back on topic, Saul does a good job making the story feel like it has a time and place. He also makes you feel for these characters, as they are caught up in forces totally out of control. Pretty much everyone’s life is shattered in some way by the time the book ends, and John Saul pulled very few punches doing so a long the way. Even given the subject matter, Suffer the Children managed to surpass my expectations of horror.

However, some of the plot points didn’t quite come together, and the nature of the Conger curse was left unexplained. The vengeful spirit of Elizabeth Conger uses the possessed body of her ancestor to abduct and murder children, or at least that is what we are led to believe. The book never makes it clear if this is indeed a possession or if Elizabeth is just sick. It doesn’t seem like this plot point was left intentionally ambiguous — it felt to me like Saul couldn’t quite make up his mind.

Elizabeth, possessed or not, imprisons her victims in the same cave that houses the skeletal remains of her dead ancestor, and then later kills them. The Conger family has heard rumors of this pit over the past 100 years, but nobody has ever been able to find it. The town as well as the police force do not come across it during their searches for the missing children while combing over that area off and on again during the decade in which this novel takes place. It’s a misstep in the story that the possession of an adolescent girl becomes more believable than a search party and trained professionals being not being able to find a cave they must know exist. However, these mishandled plot points weren’t enough to take me out of the story, and half of these complaints are done in hindsight after having finished the novel.

Suffer the Children has gotten me interested in John Saul’s body of work, and I will definitely read some more of his books down the line. He does a great job of fleshing out the characters in Suffer the Children before all the bad things happen, and this helps set up the feeling of sinking dread that accompanies the second half of the story. This is one of the bleakest books I’ve read in a long time, and I loved it.



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