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Literature / Nathaniel

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You could say this property is a bit of a fixer-upper...

Nathaniel is a 1984 horror/mystery novel by John Saul. It tells the story of Janet and Michael Hall, the widow and preteen son of Mark Hall, who died under mysterious circumstances while visiting his home town of Prairie Bend: a place he had not been to since before he and Janet were married.

At the urging of Mark's parents, Anna and Amos, Janet and Michael relocate from New York to Prairie Bend and with the help of the elder Halls and their neighbors, begin restoring Mark's boyhood home to live in. Soon, however, Janet begins hearing legends of an evil spirit named Nathaniel, rumors that babies born in the town are quickly murdered; and her son Michael is beginning to act very, very strangely...


This work contains examples of the following:

  • Abusive Parents: Ben Findley, whose mistreatment of Nathaniel and confining him to the farmstead likely led to his warped personality.
  • Aerith and Bob: Prominent residents of Prairie Bend include Ben Findley, Charles Potter, Janet and Michael Hall, Amos and Anna Hall, Buck and Laura Shields... and Leif and Ione Simpson.
  • Becoming the Mask: Ben Findley admits he has been presenting a false persona to the rest of the town for so long that it has become more and more who he really is.
  • Broke Your Arm Punching Out Cthulhu: With help from Shadow, Janet defeats Nathaniel once and for all; but the stress of the fight and the ensuing fire causes her to go into premature labor and the child does not survive. To add insult to injury, as a parting shot Nathaniel erases her memory of him, making it unlikely she will be convinced of his existence again and that she will be unprepared when her son begins acting in the "new" Nathaniel's name.
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  • Chekhov's Gun: The smoke that Michael smells when Nathaniel communicates with him is actually a premonition of the future.
  • Covers Always Lie: There are graves in a field. They just don't have big, ominously-glowing headstones that state who is buried there and why.
  • Creepy Child: As Michael falls under Nathaniel's influence, the other boys in town become disturbed by him and have to be pressured to socialize with him.
  • Death of a Child: Babies dying during childbirth is a major aspect of the plot.
  • Downer Ending: Nathaniel is defeated, but Janet loses her baby. Michael, whose psychic powers cause him to misunderstand what happened, believes his newborn brother has been murdered and vows to punish those he thinks are responsible.
  • Death Seeker: Nathaniel doesn't know what else to do when all is said and done except to end his life where it began.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Shadow. He knows that Amos Hall is bad news and won't let him forget it.
  • Evil Old Folks: Amos Hall, who is so menacing even at the best of times that even someone as Genre Blind as Janet ought to be able to see it. (She can't.) Then there is Ben Findley who will stick a shotgun under your nose if he even thinks you've set foot on his property. This is because he is protecting the son he fathered with Amos's wife, fearing for his son's life if Amos ever learned of his existence. The crazy old man persona is actually just an act, or at least it was originally.
  • Hope Spot: Amos Hall was Nathaniel's primary target, and with him dead it seems that all will be well, but then comes the reveal...
  • Hysterical Woman: Laura is treated this way by her family due to her belief that her baby's death in childbirth was not accidental. She eventually develops the delusion that her child is still alive and spends time in a mental institution as a result. Even years afterward, she remains quite fragile.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: It takes the entire book to convince Janet that Nathaniel is real, only to have him erase her memory of the encounter.
  • Madman In The Attic: On a fateful trip to the attic of her new home Janet discovers shocking evidence that Nathaniel, the ghostly figure of legend whom her son claims he can talk to, may once have been a real person. And it's a red herring. The Nathaniel that Michael is really talking to is Michael's own half-uncle: a telepath who really is this trope.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted. People think the trouble in the town is being caused by Nathaniel, a vengeful ghost connected with Amos Hall's family. It turns out Nathaniel is indeed to blame, but it's a different Nathaniel who is a living man and who isn't even related to Amos Hall.
  • Police Are Useless: The local authorities only do a cursory investigation of Ben Findley's murder before assuming it must have been the work of a drifter passing through town and writing it off as unsolvable for that reason.
  • Posthumous Character: Mark Hall's death sets the events of the story in motion and what happened on his final visit to Prairie Bend comes to be of great importance.
  • Psychic Children: Michael, who can communicate with the disembodied Nathaniel whom it then turns out is not disembodied, but a flesh-and-blood one of these as well.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Ben Findley and Anna Hall's son, Nathaniel. Being locked away by his father his entire life, on top of his empathic and telepathic powers, has rendered him vengeful and homicidal
  • "Scooby-Doo" Hoax: The mysterious ghost who lurks in Ben Findley's barn? Why that's just the illegitimate son he's kept hidden for twenty years! The boy's outdated, homespun clothing? Old Man Findley made those because he was afraid of people wondering why a lifelong bachelor was buying children's clothes! But what about the "ghost's" mysterious supernatural powers? Oh crap, it turns out those are real.
  • Supernatural Proof Mother: Janet continues to deny the existence of Nathaniel no matter what happens. And since he mind-wipes her following their sole encounter, it appears likely she will continue to do so.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: Being a John Saul novel, Prairie Bend is full of sinister goings-on. The trope gets subverted somewhat, since the reader is led to believe that Amos, Dr. Potter, and the other townsfolk are doing Nathaniel's bidding. It turns out they don't really know what's going on at all, Amos is the only person who seriously believes in Nathaniel, and the Nathaniel he believes in isn't even the one who is responsible.
  • Tragic Stillbirth: Mark's sister Laura, having experienced a previous miscarriage as well as having been present when her mother had one, is terrified that she will lose her next child as well. She's right.
  • Weapon of Choice: Amos Hall always seems to have his rifle or pitchfork within reach. Ben Findley, meanwhile favors his trademark shotgun.
  • Your Mind Makes It Real: Confined to a wheelchair, Anna Hall has lived in fear of her abusive husband Amos her whole life. When she learns that he has died, she is able to rise from her wheelchair and realizes that she had only made herself think she is crippled out of guilt at playing along with the things Amos has done.