The After Word: Faces of Fear

Let’s talk about John Saul. John Saul is a horror author who’s…kinda popular but only really among horror fans. He doesn’t have the deep understanding of character that Stephen King does or a unique style like Anne Rice. He doesn’t have the name recognition of Dean Koontz or the brash attitude of Bentley Little. What John Saul had was consistency. I say “had” because he hasn’t released a book since 2009, but before that, he had one book out per year (or, in the case of 1997, five) and they were all…solid. They weren’t always good, but they were rarely bad—and almost all of them were bestsellers. Which is weird because I don’t think I’ve ever met a single other person who’s read a John Saul novel other than my mom.

I’ve read a few of his books, and my impressions of them have ranged from “Meh” to “That wasn’t bad.” Again, he’s not a bad writer by any means; just a safe one. He has bragged in the past that he wrote his first novel in 28 days, and everything I’ve read by him feels like they took about that amount of time. He’s competent, and he can be pretty good at building tension, but his books rarely dive very deep beneath surface level. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if you just want some light reading. So, for my first review of Halloween month, I decided to talk about America’s 5th favorite horror author! I’ll…review some better stuff later. Promise.

(This is just gonna be a quick review, so I’ll spare you any overly long plot summaries and just stick to the basics. That being said . . .  if any of you are worried about spoilers for an 8-year-old John Saul novel: spoiler alert.)

Plot speed-run

Alison Shaw’s parents get divorced because her dad is gay (don’t worry; they remain friends). Conrad Dunn is an insanely successful plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills who changed his wife from a “normal woman” into the world’s most successful supermodel. A boating accident scars his wife’s face, and everyone in Beverly Hills can’t help but be total shits about it in all the ways you would expect. She kills herself. One year later, Conrad Dunn and Alison’s mom are getting married, and Alison is moving to Beverly Hills. Her friends joke with her about getting free plastic surgery. The kids she’s going to go to school with in Beverly Hills have all had work done, and they say she should get it too ‘cus her boobs are small. Her mom suggests she should. Conrad suggests she should. Eventually she does. She has a birthday party and invites her old friends; her best friend gets pissed off at her because she’s changing and got fake boobs. Meanwhile, someone is going around killing ladies and stealing their body parts and glands. Alison’s mom discovers a shrine in the basement to Conrad’s dead wife. And Alison, who originally found Conrad very creepy, is slowly coming to accept him and his profession. Guess where it goes wrong.

It turns out that the killer is somehow related to Conrad—it doesn’t really mention how, but I guess the killer was a plastic surgeon too. She mentions that she was always better than Conrad and Conrad was obsessed with proving he was the best and blah blah blah. Point is: the killer is a famous woman named Danielle who was once a man named Daniel. Conrad helped her transition to a woman, and she became a cosmetics creator. He’s blackmailing her into killing these women by threatening to out her as trans. She had developed a way of keeping body parts alive for years and years and uses glands to create her cosmetics and ointments, and now Conrad wants to use that to rebuild his dead wife. So Danielle has been searching for women who have the exact right body parts and killing them to harvest those parts (and I mean literally every part—eyebrows, breasts, cheeks, lips, etc…) and Conrad has been trying to find the woman with the exact right bone structure to remake his wife’s face. Guess what: that “woman” is Alison. He kills Alison’s mom and tries to perform surgery on Alison, but he’s stopped by her dad and his new husband.

The book is, once again, okay. It’s probably the best Saul book I’ve ever read but not because of its writing—because of its subtext. The whole book is about Alison slowly being seduced by Conrad and being made more comfortable with changing herself and her appearance. Alison starts out as a well-adjusted, intelligent girl who looks at Conrad and his profession with skepticism, but she slowly comes around to relying on his opinion about her appearance and life. In fact, the only reason he doesn’t get his way is because Alison’s mom finds out what he’s trying to do, so he has to move quicker than he had planned. It’s a story about a girl having her agency stripped away, and a look at how society (particularly a male-dominated society) makes that happen to lots of women. And it was actually pretty well done. The way Alison is changed and seduced legitimately disturbed me. It was just the rest of the book that wasn’t all that good.

The subplot about Danielle was really unnecessary but thankfully much less transphobic than I had originally anticipated. It was pretty obvious that she was the killer as the prologue is all about a man who wants to become a woman and is going to use the help of a talented plastic surgeon to do it and then that character never shows up again. So you know that she’s one of the characters we’re seeing, and there are only a few logical candidates. I guessed pretty early on that it was Danielle and wasn’t surprised by the revelation. I was surprised by the treatment of her character. We get one chapter of her POV after it’s revealed that she’s the killer . . . and she gets killed by Conrad in it. We get a look inside her head and how she had struggled her whole life to be happy with herself and how, when she finally got the body she wanted, Conrad used it to exploit her. Then he kills her. So it was nice that it wasn’t the unfortunate horror trope of “trans person is a killer because they’re trans” (see: Sleepaway Camp), but it was the unfortunate trope of “trans person exists only as murder fodder.” And really, she didn’t need to be in the book. Conrad could have been the killer himself. Danielle’s character really boils down to “created green fantasy goo that keeps organs alive for decades.”

The rest of the characters are completely throwaway, which is less a commentary on the superficial nature of wealth and fame in Beverly Hills and more just Saul padding out pages. Alison’s dad is nice, and his story with his new husband is fun. The most natural writing is when Alison is hanging out with her dad.

Overall, the book is okay. I read it in like five hours, so it wasn’t a huge time investment, and it was better than I expected. All in all, I don’t really recommend seeking it out. But I will point out that I got it for $5 at Office Max and, after it gathered dust for two years, it helped me pass the day at work. So if you’re in a bind and happen to come across it for a few bucks, it wouldn’t be the worst use of your money.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go carve a pumpkin.

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