John Saul has been terrifying readers for more than two decades, and we keep coming back for more. It's easy to see why when you read his latest tour de force, Nightshade, a chillingly creepy tale that will have you looking over your shoulder every chance you get. Stunningly crafted, with a plot that has more twists than a bag full of pretzels, Nightshade promises to be Saul's most compelling novel yet. And given his backlist of grimly horrifying but riveting fare, that's no small accomplishment.
In a small New England town, Joan Hapgood is content with her life until the events of one fateful afternoon trigger a long string of tragedies that threaten both her future and her sanity. It starts when Joan's mother, Emily, who has been steadily deteriorating under the effects of Alzheimer's disease, accidentally starts a fire while trying to cook. To say Joan's relationship with her mother is strained would be a gross understatement. In Emily's eyes, Joan has always been a poor second to her sister, Cynthia, who was beautiful, devoted, and bright. Despite Cynthia's death many years before, Joan still lives in her big sister's shadow whenever Emily is around. Not only has Joan never been pretty enough, bright enough, or loving enough, but she has a bastard son whose father remains unknown -- all unforgivable sins to Emily.
Against the wishes of her husband, Bill, and her son Matt, Joan moves her mother into the Hapgood family home where she and Bill have lived for ten years. Emily's insistence that Cynthia is not only still alive, but present, combined with her viciously acerbic attitude toward Matt and Joan, strains Joan's marriage to the breaking point, forcing Bill to move out. Given that Bill is the only father Matt has ever known, the boy takes the separation hard, becoming understandably angry. When Bill ends up dead during a hunting trip -- possibly shot by Matt himself -- the town begins to wonder just how angry Matt has become.
The death of Bill Hapgood is followed by several mysterious disappearances, including that of Joan's mother, Emily. In each case, the bulk of the evidence points to young Matt, and soon the entire town is close to forming a lynch mob. Matt himself isn't sure what the truth is, for he keeps suffering odd fugue states and imagining that he sees, hears, and smells his dead Aunt Cynthia. For Joan, the intense grief brought on by her husband's death must be set aside as she fights to prove her son's innocence. But no one suspects the real truth, which is so bizarre, so horrifyingly twisted, it will haunt those who survive forever.
For those who like their plot lines well-crafted and convoluted, Nightshade is sure to please. From the unnerving first pages of the prologue to the final sentence on the last page, Saul tosses in enough red herrings and ambiguities to keep readers guessing. Horror fans won't be disappointed either; while the body count is a bit lighter than in some of Saul's other works, there is plenty of blood and gore to be had, and a ghost or two (or are they?) to liven things up.