Brian Schwartz's Reviews > Punish the Sinners

Punish the Sinners by John Saul
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it was amazing
bookshelves: horror

While not being exceptionally well written, Punish the Sinners stands apart in the John Saul canon.

Most John Saul novels are simply stories. They have no subtext or social commentary. Punish The Sinners examines the conflict between traditional Catholic Church doctrine versus a more contemporary view. This is the only novel where Saul examines any subject of any consequence.

Saul’s views are quite clear on the subject. The strong beliefs and unyielding passion of Peter Vernon were certainly cast in the role of evil. Balsam’s more humane and contemporary views were heroic. Saul is also clear on who he thought was winning. Evil triumphed good in Punish the Sinners. This is also unique in Saul’s canon when good always triumphs over evil.

What is more remarkable about this novel is its presience. This conflict would not come to the fore until a couple decades after Punish the Sinners was written. Also addressed on the periphery of the novel is sexual deviance which became the defining issue for Catholics in the 2000s.

Another issue in the book not typically discussed in decent company in the 1970s was teen suicide. Peter and the hospital psychologist debate the phenomenon of suicide contagion. The suicide contagion is the idea that when one teen commits suicide, other teens get caught up in the romantic notion of suicide and kill themselves. In a more modern era where teen suicide is addressed openly as a social affliction, suicide contagion and how it works is an issue of public discussion.

This social and religious debate and subtext is unique in Saul’s canon. Also unusual is the fact that Punish the Sinners is not a particularly well plotted or well written.

Saul’s books are all plot driven. He plots carefully and seldom leaves holes or gaps. He provides great twists that are believable and well conceived. Punish the Sinners has several gaping plot holes that detract from an otherwise dark and riveting novel.

We never learn just how it is that the Society of St. Peter Martyr and Peter Vernon are able to engage in such dominating mind control? It all takes place out of sight of the reader. What was the motivation? The reader learns in the twist that Peter Vernon was that little boy who witnessed his parents’ murder when Saul leads us to believe through most of the novel it was Balsam. But nothing in the text shows us how that hatred of young girls grows and festers. The hate is just there. More development of the malice would have improved this novel immensely.

I have read Saul’s entire library. I have enjoyed all his novels to varying degrees. However, I look at many Saul novels sitting on my bookshelf and have no recollection of the characters or the plot. They don’t stick with me. This book has stuck with me over the years because it is so dark and does provide that social commentary and subtext.

John Saul is regarded as a good horror writer among those who read horror. But he is never mentioned in the same voice as the greats of the genre. One wonders how his stature might have been different had he continued to provide subtext and social commentary in his novels.
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Reading Progress

September 16, 2012 – Shelved
September 18, 2012 – Shelved as: horror
July 31, 2016 – Started Reading
September 4, 2016 – Finished Reading

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