Mazes and Monsters

The Devil’s Labyrinth by John Saul (2006): John Saul’s horror-thriller writing career spans about 35 years (and counting). Somehow I’ve avoided him until now, primarily because there are only so many hours in the day. This mid-to-late career novel is an entertaining dandy, however, a slice of Roman Catholic horror that manages to wring some new scares and concepts out of the nearly exhausted sub-genre of possession and exorcism.

Be aware that Saul works very much in the plain style. His strengths lie in plot and characterization, with style being pretty much kept as quiet as possible. This works for Saul because he indeed does have strengths in those two areas. A couple of plot twists truly do surprise, and the characterization, especially of the teenagers trapped in the titular labyrinth, rings true throughout.

Bullied and beaten at his regular high school, a 16-year-old boy gets sent to a private Roman Catholic high school in Boston by his mother on the advice of her new boyfriend. St. Isaac’s sprawls across several acres, and its underground rooms and tunnels, built and rebuilt-upon over a couple of hundred years, form one of the meanings of the ‘labyrinth’ of the title.

The new kid, still suffering over the death of his soldier-father in Afghanistan several years earlier, soon begins to see that something odd is going on. And as the oddities and sinister activities increase, so too does the Vatican’s interest in St. Isaac’s. One of the new pope’s main interests is the history of exorcism in the Roman Catholic Church. And when one of the priests at St. Isaac’s send the papal office a videofile of what appears to be an ancient, near-mythical ritual involving demons, the Pope’s interest is piqued.

But the kids are not all right. To resurrect an old phrase yet again, this novel is a page-turner and a humdinger. The climax gets a little bit too gimmicky, but otherwise a solid read. Recommended.

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