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

 

 

 

Child’s Play, Andrew Neiderman (1985)

Alex and Sharon Gold live in a small Catskills resort town in the former tourist house Alex’s parents used to operate. He makes his money through investing, and Sharon, something of an introvert, is content to live in the big house with little interaction with the outside world. One day, Alex suggests they take in a foster child. This takes Sharon by surprise, since over a decade ago their only child was stillborn, and Alex has grown impotent due to sexual hang-ups.

Rather than taking in a young child, Alex insists on a troubled young teen, Richard, who takes to Alex within the first five seconds of meeting him. Things go so well, in such a brief amount of time, that within a few months, Alex and Sharon have taken in three additional kids, two more boys and a girl, all having suffered abuse in the past. Miraculously, the kids all fall into line; they get good grades at school and do chores around the house and grounds without complaint. They eagerly look forward to their nightly private meetings with Alex in Pa’s room, a room in the oldest part of the house that’s something like a root cellar.

Sharon is mystified as to what’s going on, because she’s completely out of the loop. The kids mainly ignore her. She begins to feel a stranger in her own home. When she investigates and discovers a terrifying secret in Pa’s room, she knows something is seriously wrong, but having no living relatives or close friends, she has no one to turn to for help. Needless to say, things go from bad to worse.

In a previous review of a Neiderman novel, Sister, Sister, I mentioned it suffered from lightning quick plot developments and pacing. The problem with Child’s Play is the opposite. It drags, with something of a lather-rinse-repeat approach. Some say this is a slow burning, disquieting story. It’s slow, I’ll grant that.

In a brief prologue, we learn that Alex was abused as a child by his father, and abuse is pretty much the theme of the story. Sharon is subtly and insidiously abused, both emotionally and psychologically, by Alex and, later, the kids. The kids, too, are psychologically and emotionally abused through Alex’s cult leader style of manipulation. I should have cared about them, but we don’t learn enough about the children before Alex gets his hands on them, and after he does, they’re one-dimensional. They don’t have any real story or development. If only one would have broken free from Alex’s thrall, it would have made for a more interesting dynamic.

Another problem is that there’s no one to like in this. Sharon is a dishrag. Alex is an obvious nutter, just like his dear ‘ole dad. How is he able to bond, have an instant rapport, with each of these kids at their first meeting? He’s like Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and David Koresh rolled into one. If there was some kind of supernatural process involved, it needed to be explained (and would have made for a better story, frankly). If not, it’s absurd, and I don’t buy it.  That’s the problem, the reader is asked to suspend their disbelief far too much for this story to be plausible. The only two characters I really liked were Stacy Knots and Tillie, both periphery characters.

We find out little to nothing of Alex’s abusive childhood, his off-his-rocker father, his (probably weak-willed) mother, and courtship with Sharon. Due to intense fear of sex and the female body, instilled in him by his batshit father, Alex believes a lack of a sex life is his “goodness” winning. I laughed out loud when I read how his impotency came to be. It was unexpected and hilarious. A sampling:

He had nightmares about her vagina, seeing it as a great and powerful vise, gripping his penis within its lips and squeezing and pulling until one night he imagined it snapping off and being swallowed within.

There’s a little more to it, but you get the gist. You can almost hear the lunatic conversations between Pa Gold and Margaret White.

Much is made of Pa’s room and, to a lesser extent, his journals, which Alex is always reading while listening to O Fortuna from Carmina Burana. Problem is, we don’t get to know anything of Pa, his damn room and what goes on in there, or anything in his journals. Is there a supernatural element at play? If so, please elaborate. My guess is, there isn’t, so it all seems rather pointless. This was a disappointing read, with frustrating characters. Alex is smoothly domineering, Sharon is a passive victim, and the kids move from delinquents with attitude problems to mindless, yes-Alex drones.

In Child’s Play, the reader is subjected to too much of the mundane, and either not enough or none of what’s important; Pa’s room and journals, and how Alex manages to change all the kids’ personalities and win their unquestioning loyalty. There are a few things that are somewhat creepy, but sadly, they’re never fully explored.  I did like some of the events in the last chapter, but didn’t much care for the epilogue. **1/2 out of 5

Sister, Sister, Andrew Neiderman (1992)

Special ed teacher Neil Richards is offered an unusual, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. To teach twelve-year-old twin sisters, Alpha and Beta, who reside in the research annex of a hospital. The twins have been at Mandicott all their lives, never stepping outside their living quarters because they’re conjoined near the waist, sharing one set of legs, which Beta has control of.

The team involved with the twins includes Dr. Endermo, who heads up the facility, Dr. Henderson, a geneticist, and Dr. Weber, a psychologist. Despite a couple of moments of bad vibes during his interview, Neil accepts the job and asks to start right away. He finds Beta to be a fairly typical twelve-year-old. Alpha, though, has a higher IQ, a harder edge, and is the dominant personality. After his first lesson with them, he suspects the girls, or at least Alpha, have psychic abilities. When the woman who cooks for the twins dies in a freak accident, Neil’s suspicions grow, believing the girls killed her, as well as their former psychologist. After both Neil and Dr. Weber suffer strange experiences, they start digging for more information, convinced more is going on at the institute than pure medical research. As a result, they grow increasingly mistrustful of the other team members and even the twins themselves.

Something of a medical thriller, this is a very quick read that isn’t bogged down by long descriptive passages or clinical terminology. The sparse use of medical jargon makes sense, since Neil isn’t a doctor and it’s his story we’re following. However, things happen awfully fast, almost too abruptly. Neil is instantly attracted to the psychologist, Tania Weber, who initially tries to keep things professional, but succumbs to her attraction to him soon enough. Another example is his suspicion after one teaching session. A slow build-up would have been better, but since a lot of things were telegraphed in the first chapter, it doesn’t matter. I also have issues with the lax security in the facility, both inside and out. Exterior side and back doors are left unlocked at all hours, which seems strange, and don’t get me started on rooms within the annex.

This book was originally published in 1992, but the edition I read was more recent, with slight revisions that were frankly distracting. In early chapters, there were mentions of technology that either didn’t exist in 1992 (iPods, iPads, iPhones) or were relatively new, expensive, or not yet ubiquitous (laptops, internet, cellphones). The inclusion of these items was unnecessary, since they’re forgotten later on and don’t play into the story. A minor complaint, but I suppose it doesn’t matter if you’re unaware of the original publication date. Personally, I don’t care for updates to existing works, they lose something, a feeling of authenticity to the time they were written. More annoying is that technology that was available at the time isn’t utilized at all in the story, such as access badges or swipe cards for the research facility, and security cameras. By casually shoehorning in 21st century tech, it makes the absence of what existed and should be there pretty glaring.

With shades of Firestarter and The Fury, Sister, Sister is a quick, easy read with one disturbing scene. Neither spectacular, nor awful, it’s okay, but reads more like a novelization of a movie. If you think of it in that way, as a movie with the story playing out in 90 or 105 minutes, the lighting quick pacing of events/plot developments is a little easier to accept. There’s worse out there. *** out of 5

(Note: The e-book (Kindle) edition of this book is riddled with formatting and typographical errors that make it a less than enjoyable reading experience. It’s atrocious, the worst I’ve seen.)