Pin, Andrew Neiderman (1981)

Living in a small town in the Catskills, siblings Leon and Ursula have an unusual home life. Their mother is obsessed with cleaning. Their father, the town doctor, is aloof to them most of the time, but when necessary, explains things in a very straightforward, clinical manner. Even his facts of life talk describes sex as merely a biological need, like thirst or hunger. Then there’s Pin, the transparent anatomical manikin in his office, which, through the use of ventriloquism, the doctor uses with child patients to explain things or ease anxiety. Leon enjoys visiting his father’s office and talking to Pin while his father manages paperwork or tidies up.

Because of their father’s emotional remoteness and mother’s obsessive compulsive behavior, the siblings don’t have many friends, if any, during their younger years. Their social lives pick up when they’re in their teens and begin to date, but Leon and Ursula still turn to each other as confidants, always relaying the events of their evenings out, no matter how intimate. When their parents are involved in an accident, the siblings lives take a dramatic turn. Their bond being so close, they refuse to live with relatives, preferring to remain in the house they were raised. They do, however, gain a new housemate, Pin. Why not? He’s already like one of the family.

The synopsis may not sound very exciting, but Pin is an intriguing psychological horror/thriller that is wonderfully bizarre. Perverse, even. Told in first person by Leon, the book begins with a prologue steeped in weirdness. The first three or four chapters are a little bumpy, comprised of quick vignettes of various events over a number of years, but once the accident occurs, the book settles into a nice, smooth groove. Those early chapters contain some important information that ties into later events, and when I read one seemingly simple, innocuous sentence, I suspected, at least in part, how the novel would end. It didn’t detract from my enjoyment, the ride getting there was great, in a fantastically twisted way. In fact, events in those early chapters are so skillfully woven in, when I reread the prologue, I discovered another layer to the epilogue.

The characters are few, only focusing on three or four, which creates an intimacy, allowing the reader to become immersed in their world and lives. Neiderman lulls us into accepting the eccentricities of the characters through the use of dark humor, affability, and even charm, yet all the while the reader rationally knows that what’s going on isn’t quite right. The action, for the most part, is limited to the house where Leon and Ursula live, a mansion backed by woods. Isolation, cold, and loss are prevalent themes. The house is physically isolated, and Leon and Ursula are socially, and at times, emotionally, secluded. Some of the most important events take place in the winter, which I believe was a conscious decision on the part of the author. The cold doesn’t just apply to the season or weather; occasionally, when Leon is agitated or upset, he experiences temporary numbing and coldness in his hands. Remember, too, the emotional coldness of the parents.

Loss is another theme running through the book. Loss of innocence, childhood, loved ones. Loss of will, identity, self, and sanity. It’s also a story of extremes; Mother is an extreme clean freak, Father is extremely clinical, Leon and Ursula share an extreme intimacy. Distance and closeness; too much of either can be a detrimental, even dangerous, thing.

With shades of early, authentic VC Andrews, perhaps some Shirley Jackson, and one particular work by William Goldman, Pin is a good entry in late-20th century American Gothic. Don’t be misled into thinking this is a low-tier knock-off of the above mentioned authors. Pin is unique and holds its own as an engrossing look at a strange family dynamic steeped in both disengagement and preoccupation. A detached mother focused on her cleaning obsession, a cool, unemotional, non-demonstrative father focused on his medicine, and a sibling relationship so familiar, it hints of pseudo-incestuousness. And, at the heart of it all, is Pin. It’s so easy to like Pin. I guarantee you’ll never forget Pin.

This book is an excellent read, and one I highly recommend. Deserving more attention than it gets, Pin is a novel that can, and should, be read more than once. Complex, layered, and nuanced, it’s a story that gets in your head, stays with you, and makes you think. One of my new all-time favorites, it earns my highest rating, ***** out of 5.

 

The Unloved, John Saul (1988)

After a nightmare about his mother, Kevin Devereaux has a bad feeling. His foreboding is proven correct when his sister, Marguerite, phones and informs him their mother is dying. He announces to his family they’re heading down to South Carolina to visit the mother and sister he’s never spoken of, the family he divorced himself from years ago when he moved north.

Kevin, his wife Anne, and two children, Julie, fifteen, and Jeff, eight, arrive in the small, run-down town of Devereaux, founded by his ancestors. The family mansion, Sea Oaks, an old plantation house, is set on an island reached by causeway. The family is greeted warmly by Kevin’s sister, whose promising dancing career was thwarted by a hip injury after falling down the stairs years before. Matriarch Helena Devereaux, despite knocking on death’s door, is a vicious, spiteful, domineering, demanding harridan who treats her daughter like a slave. Housekeeper/cook Ruby, who’s been with the family for decades, fares better, seemingly impervious to the vitriol slung her way.

Eventually, Helena dies, and Kevin is stunned to learn he’s inherited everything, which is basically Sea Oaks, and all the property in the town of Devereaux. There’s a stipulation, however; in order to keep his inheritance, he has to live at Sea Oaks for ten years. Then, he can do what he wants. If he chooses not to stay, everything goes to the military school he was forced to attend, and Marguerite would be left to fend for herself. Kevin almost immediately decides to turn the mansion into a hotel and develop the property, essentially turning the island into a resort. Anne thinks it’s a bad idea. Not long after Helena’s funeral, a lot of strange things start happening, including a specter roaming the family graveyard, and a number of unexpected and shocking deaths.

John Saul novels were ubiquitous back in the day, the covers a form of branding not unlike the step-backs used for V.C. Andrews titles. They were everywhere; grocery, drug, book, and discount department store chains. And yet, oddly, I never read one of them before this, even though I read a lot of horror in the ’80’s, when the genre was in its heyday. I don’t think The Unloved was a bad book to start with, but I do have a love-hate relationship with it.

I will say that Saul kept my interest, even after rolling my eyes when certain deaths occurred with what I’ll call convenient ease. I can’t reveal details without spoiling, but they run something like: “I refuse to believe A overrides B,” along with “X makes a moronic decision no sane person would,” and “Y and Z conveniently freeze in terror.” A couple of times I veered into “what about/isn’t there?” and the last chapter had me asking some major questions, which can all be categorized under “how/why in the hell is that allowed to happen?”

Yes, those plot holes and contrivances had me ranting in exasperation — but I still kept reading, because Saul has a way of keeping you intrigued. His writing is like potato chips, M&Ms, or crack; addicting. He doesn’t skimp on gruesome detail, and paints some pretty vivid images of the grotesque which infuses the story with an effective creepiness. Bodies stack up like the end of a Shakespeare tragedy, and his ability to create a character so loathsome you hate her immediately (Helena), and another you like just as instantaneously (Ruby) is impressive. Nothing surprised me in this book, it’s predictable and obvious, but that’s true of most genre fiction.

As I read, I envisioned this as a 1980’s made-for-TV movie, until things started getting a bit grisly. It would have been a bit too much for prime time, but it would have made for some crazy television. There are soupçons in this story from familiar works, among them; Now, Voyager, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Psycho, Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire, and from the book world, Flowers in the Attic and My Sweet Audrina. Not so much blatant rip-offs, but more pinches of spice to enhance the macabre stew, the pastiche helps makes for a disturbing, entertaining, read. ***1/2 out of 5