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Hellfire by John Saul (Bantam: $4.50; paperback; 352 pp.) : Books of Blood,Volume 1 by Clive Barker (Berkley Books: $2.95; paperback; 210 pp.)

August 10, 1986|Fleming Meeks | Meeks frequently writes on crime and suspense fiction for Publishers Weekly. He lives in New York City. and

At rush hour, it always seems like there's at least one person in every New York subway car reading a novel by Stephen King. And while a good scare may provide an effective release at the end of a long day, King on a crowded train at 8 a.m. adds new dimension to the concept of horror. But for all it's long-winded charm, King's oeuvre is exhaustible. (One person I know read seven of his novels in 10 days, while vacationing on Nantucket.) After King, to whom do horror fans turn?

Well, there's John Saul. The author of nine novels, including "Brain Child," "Suffer the Children," "Nathaniel" and "Comes a Blind Fury," Saul has more than 10 million books in print.

His latest, "Hellfire," is set in a sleepy Massachusetts town, long dominated by the wealthy Sturgess family. Stereotypical New England WASPS, grandmother Abigail Sturgess, son Phillip and granddaughter Tracy live in an imposing mansion, overlooking the village and the long-abandoned shoe factory--the factory from which their fortune was derived.

But all is not well in the Sturgess home. The widowed Phillip has remarried, bringing his wife Carolyn and her amiable 11-year-old daughter, Beth, to live at Hilltop. Tracy, who has been spoiled into a state of near pathological snobbery, resents their intrusion and conspires with her grandmother to drive them out.

Enter Amy, the ghost of an 11-year-old killed with seven other children in a fire in the mill 100 years ago. Amy, whose entrances are accompanied by the smell of smoke, befriends Beth, and the nasty secret of the Sturgess family is revealed: The children all could have been saved, but Samuel Pruett Sturgess sealed them behind a fire door, saving the mill instead.

And Amy wants revenge.

Beth, in the meantime, has come to be regarded as something of a nut case. When one of Tracy's friends takes a fatal fall down a set of stairs at the mill and lands on a pickax, Beth claims that Amy did it, because he'd been nasty to her. But the accident closely resembles the one that killed Abigail's first son, 40-odd years ago, and prompts her to reconsider her husband's repeated warnings about the mill: "It's an evil place," and his last words: "She's there . . . She's still there and she hates us all."

More fatal accidents occur, and Abigail, who with Phillip is planning to transform the mill into a mall, takes it upon herself to find out what's going on. A visit to the mill and a heart attack later, she warns Phillip: "I was in the presence of death. I could see it, and I could hear it, and I could feel it. It's there, Phillip. Death lives in the mill, and if you don't close it, it will kill us all."

Not quite all, at least not yet, but the finale (hint: another fire) features a few more grisly deaths.

If this plot sounds a bit overwrought, consider the following: "Suffer the Children"--an evil deed of 100 years ago is being punished, children are disappearing; "Brain Child"--after an accident, a child is brought back from death and is revenging a terrible deed from 100 years ago; "Nathaniel"--a new kid in town takes over the spirit of a 100-year-old legend that haunts the town; "Comes a Blind Fury"--a new girl in town is seeks revenge for the torments a blind girl suffered before her death 100 years ago.

Clive Barker's American debut comes heralded by no less than Stephen King himself. "I've seen the future of horror . . . ," he writes in a blurb for the British author, "and its name is Clive Barker." King, of course, exaggerates. "Books of Blood," the first of three collections of Barker's stories, is calculated to shock, but in that it's hardly new or unique.

In "The Midnight Meat Train," a butcher rides the New York subways late at night, looking for bodies to flay and deliver to the former city fathers, zombies who live beneath the streets and feed on human flesh. In "The Yattering and Jack," a low-level demon torments his human prey (a mild-mannered gherkin importer) with tricks like reviving a half-roasted Christmas turkey: "It's wings stretched themselves out to either side of its stuffed bulk and it half hopped, half fell on to the oven door, in a mockery of its living self. Headless, oozing stuffing and onions, it flopped around as though nobody had told the damn thing it was dead, while the fat still bubbled on its bacon-strewn back."

In "Pig Blood Blues," a reform school boy gets eaten by a gluttonous, anthropomorphic pig on the school farm. And in "Sex, Death and Starshine," a troupe of zombies rises from the grave to usurp the final production of "Twelfth Night" in a London theater scheduled for demolition.

Barker, who occasionally spices things up with a dash of aberrant sex (if that's the proper way to describe a coupling between zombie and human) gives good value in the weird and creepy department, though, perhaps because of the limitations of the story form, he never comes up with "the big scare." John Saul, on the other hand, seems to have wrung all of the terror out of his plot long ago, the result being that the most frightening element of "Hellfire" is not the supernatural nor the ample number of "accidental" deaths, but rather it's the unrelenting adolescent nastiness of the jealous stepsister.

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