Suffer The Children is a 1977 horror novel by John Saul, his first published novel and the one that established his career (and for a while, his formula).
Exactly Exty Years Ago on Conger Point, little Beth Conger was raped and murdered by her father, who promptly committed suicide out of shame and guilt...but not before concealing the child's body in a secret cave overlooking the sea. The scandal is permanently erased from the Conger family records and the cliffs around the cave become the subject of a Hereditary Curse, forbidden to all future generations of Congers.
20 Minutes into the Past, the few remaining Congers—Alcoholic Parent Jack Conger, his wife Rose, and their two daughters—live alone at Conger Point as their family slowly falls apart. A year ago, Jack did something terrible to to their younger daughter Sarah, something that he can't remember. Sarah has been mute and schizophrenic ever since. The lack of trust between Jack and Rose, coupled with Jack's increasing alcoholism and the difficulty of managing Sarah, have left the family full of resentments.
Thank goodness for their elder daughter, thirteen-year-old Elizabeth: beautiful, kind, trustworthy, wise beyond her years, and endlessly patient with her strange younger sister.
But now Elizabeth has visited to the forbidden cliffs and discovered a secret in the cave above the sea—the secret of a lonely, betrayed, enraged little girl. Now Elizabeth is slowly changing. Now the village children have begun, one by one, to disappear. And the only one who knows the truth is a traumatized child who cannot speak.
This work contains examples of the following tropes:
- Adult Fear: Plenty. Jack fears he might have done something terrible to his own daughter while black-out drunk. The townsfolk fear that a serial kidnapper is stalking their tiny peaceful town. And both Jack and Rose fear that Sarah's mental illness has progressed into something dangerous—not only might their daughter have harmed other children, but they might have to permanently institutionalize her.
- Alcoholic Parent: Jack is so consumed with what he might have done to Sarah that he's withdrawn completely into the bottle. It's more a Drowning My Sorrows situation than an abusive one, but it still takes its toll on the entire family.
- Ambiguous Disorder: Sarah's mental illness is described as "schizophrenia" by her doctors, a disorder that is not spontaneously triggered by trauma. She also displays symptoms that could be interpreted as severe autism (which would have manifested long before the age of eight) and PTSD (which at least would make more sense under the circumstances). It's a mishmash of vaguely creepy symptoms.
- An Arm and a Leg: Sarah comes out of the woods covered in blood, dragging a child's bloody, severed arm.
- Artifact of Doom: The mysterious portrait. The doll. The Ouija Board. The diary.
- Ax-Crazy: Elizabeth in the cave.
- Creepy Child: Sarah
- Creepy Doll: Elizabeth finds one in the attic. Also she turns her dead, decaying, decapitated cat into one in the cave.
- Demonic Possession: The line is blurred how much of Elizabeth's behavior is caused by Beth actually possessing her and how much is just Elizabeth letting her inner psychopath off the chain.
- Dropped a Bridge on Him: At the end of the book, adult Elizabeth rather casually mentions that both her parents died a few years ago in a boating accident.
- "Flowers for Algernon" Syndrome: After many years of therapy, Sarah recovers and is eventually released from the mental hospital as a cheerful, high-spirited young woman. It doesn't last.
- The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: Outwardly, Elizabeth is remarkably patient and loving toward her disturbed sister, to the point that their parents defer to Elizabeth's authority in regards to Elizabeth's understanding of Sarah's behavior. In the cave, however, she unleashes her violent subconscious resentments. Meanwhile poor confused Sarah is simultaneously terrified of Elizabeth and deeply attached to her.
- Here We Go Again!: In the final scene, it appears that adult Elizabeth will start killing again.
- Jekyll & Hyde: It's unclear what, if anything, Elizabeth remembers about the cave whenever she leaves it. Sometimes it seems she knows everything and is just good at concealing it; other times she finds her filthy cliff-climbing clothes from the night before and assumes they must be Sarah's.
- Living Doll Collector: Elizabeth begins collecting children in the secret cave, where she forces them act out tea parties.
- Morality Pet: While Elizabeth is clearly venting her frustrations against Sarah, she still loves the real Sarah and would never harm her.
- My God, What Have I Done?: Elizabeth after killing all the prisoners in the cave.
- Screaming at Squick: Kathy's reaction to almost everything that happens in the cave.
- Sympathetic Adulterer: Jack is completely impotent, but eventually has an affair with his sympathetic secretary. Both of them feel terrible about it, but Jack feels some relief that his problems are psychological, not physiological, and it eventually leads to reconciling with Rose.
- Vomit Indiscretion Shot: An upset Sarah ends up eating an entire box of chalk at school. The results when she's back in the car are predictable—her mom gets not only a lapful of it, but a faceful.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: The disappearance of Anne Forager, which kicks off the book and which seems to be an inciting incident or a harbinger of things to come, is never resolved.