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Literature / Suffer the Children

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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 in Port Arbello, 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 ambitious and frustrated 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:

  • Accidental Murder: Discussed when Sarah upsets the emergency brake on a school van and nearly sends herself and the rest of the children over a cliff. Jack and Rose fear she might have done it deliberately; her doctor assures them that Sarah doesn't understand cause and effect, but the incident underscores the potential danger of her condition.
  • Alcoholic Parent: Jack is so consumed with what he might have done to Sarah that he's withdrawn completely into the bottle.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 Hollywood 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.
  • Career Versus Man / Family Versus Career: Jack is the only person with a problem with Rose being the family breadwinner, but he brings up almost every talking point related to both tropes in order to make Rose feel bad about it.
  • Creepy Child: From the book's description, people understand that there's something severely wrong with Sarah as soon as they look in her eyes. There's just something off about her fixed stare. She has habit of creeping around in perfect silence, frightening people who turn around to find her staring at them, and she can only express herself verbally by shrieking.
  • Creepy Doll: Elizabeth finds one in the attic. Also she turns her dead, decaying, decapitated cat into one in the cave.
  • Dark Secret: Sarah and Elizabeth both share multiple dark secrets from different sides: in addition to the secret of the cave, both sisters hide the fact that Elizabeth witnessed Jack attacking Sarah, did nothing to stop it, did not go for help, and never told anyone the truth.
  • 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. Likewise it's unclear how much Jack was acting under his own initiative when he harmed Sarah and how much he was unconsciously acting out a long-ago tragedy (although when he suggests this possibility to Rose, she immediately calls him out for denying responsibility).
  • 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.
  • Generation Xerox: Elizabeth looks almost exactly like the portrait of the unknown child. It's revealed this child was Beth, a Conger ancestor whose existence was struck from the family history after her murder.
  • 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 her authority with regards to Sarah's behavior. In the cave, however, it's made pretty clear that she is full of violent subconscious resentments toward Sarah and her victims are all surrogates. Meanwhile poor confused Sarah on some level seems to sense her sister's true feelings and 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.
  • I Just Want to Have Friends: It's hinted that this might be Beth's motivation and that she's having Elizabeth assemble some form of "family" to keep her company in the cave.
  • 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.
  • Light Feminine Dark Feminine/Tomboy and Girly Girl: Elizabeth is the Light Feminine Girlie Girl, with her silky blonde hair, sky-blue eyes, fair complexion, and classical beauty, who is always neatly dressed in skirts, sweaters, or pressed blouses. Sarah is the Dark Feminine Tomboy, described as having short dark hair, olive skin, dark eyes, and an impish sort of charm. She usually wears jeans and flannel shirts because it's useless to expect her to keep nice clothes clean.
  • 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.
    • Jack asks some version of this question, frequently aloud, whenever Sarah acts out. In his case, it's literal: he knows he did something to cause this and can't remember what.
  • Near-Rape Experience: Jack, twice. The first time with Sarah, it's unclear what stops him; he can't remember and Sarah can't say. The second time, he tries to rape Rose after she taunts him for being impotent, but is prevented both by said impotence and by suddenly coming to his senses.
  • Old, Dark House: The Congers' ancestral estate, which is much too big for the few remaining Congers and is full of closed-off, unused rooms. It's huge and rambling, but rather grand, in a sad way, and it makes a rather impressive visage on its cliff overlooking the sea.
  • Rape as Backstory: Beth Conger's long-ago rape and murder kicks off the family curse, while in the more immediate past, Jack's apparent attempted rape of Sarah starts the family's unraveling.
  • 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. As for the secretary he cheats with, she feels guilty enough about adding more complications to an already troubled family that she ends the affair of her own initiative. Years later, she confesses to Jack's now-adult daughter Elizabeth, who not only forgives her, but thanks her for giving her father some happiness during an unhappy time. It's about as sympathetic a portrayal of adultery as it gets.
  • 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 is set up as an inciting incident or a harbinger of things to come. Anne fails to come home one evening, then turns up several hours later disheveled but unable to explain where she was or what happened. Other characters bring it up throughout the book, but the truth is never resolved, nor does it have any significance in the story except as a minor in-universe red herring that makes local authorities wonder if Anne's mysterious five-hour disappearance is linked to the other missing kids—and even that possibility is never explored.
    • For that matter, it's never fully explained if Jack was compelled to attack Sarah due to the family curse or if he simply did a terrible thing while under the influence of alcohol.