Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Dark Matter by Peter Straub (literary horror)

It's been over five years since we've had a new novel from author Peter Straub, but he's been busy in the meantime with his nonfiction collection Sides, the short pieces in 5 Stories, and the editing duties involved in introducing readers to Poe's Children and in the overview of American Fantastic Tales. But A Dark Matter was definitely worth the wait. Not only is it his first novel since 1999's Mr. X to not feature Tim Underhill as the protagonist (though he is referenced in passing), but it is also a beautifully drawn portrait of the subjectivity of personal experience and of the consequences of self-imposed exclusion.

In it, writer Lee Harwell tells the story of his friends and their guru and the event that changed all their lives forever. If that sounds familiar, you may be noticing the basic similarity between the plot of A Dark Matter and Straub's own classic Ghost Story (as well as myriad other great novels, including It and The Secret History), but the differences only begin with the younger cast.

Harwell's high school friends Howard "Hootie" Bly, Jason "Boats" Boatman, and Donald "Dilly" Olson — and his girlfriend and future wife, the remarkably beautiful Lee "the Eel" Truax — (along with college students Keith Hayward, Brett Milstrap, and Meredith Bright) all fall under the spell of smooth-talker Spencer Mallon. The only one who thinks Mallon is a con man full of b.s. is Harwell himself, so he wasn't there at the meeting with their idol on October 15, 1966, that ended with one person's disappearance and another's gruesome death and mutilation — that basically ruined the lives of his "most intimate friends, who had shared everything with me until the moment I refused to follow them into discipleship."

More than 40 years later, though he has written a book about it, Harwell is still trying to figure out what happened. His wife won't tell him because he wasn't there, so he has to piece information together from what he can get. In true Citizen Kane fashion, he asks everyone else left for his or her piece of the story. What Harwell discovers, though (and not surprisingly), is that each participant in the big event remembers it differently. (Rashomon comes to mind — or The Outrage, depending on which one you've seen — but only in that aspect.)

I haven't always been a Peter Straub enthusiast. In fact, none of his "classic" novels (Shadowland, Julia, the aforementioned Ghost Story) could I say I enjoyed. But there was always something about his work that called to me &mdash perhaps its obvious intelligence, usually missing in most horror fiction — so I kept trying. Finally, I took a leap and skipped ahead and read lost boy, lost girl when it was still new. It had the fresh, unpracticed style I was looking for. From there, I eased backward and read The Hellfire Club, Black House, and Mr. X, all of which I found deeply satisfying. (Black House, Straub's second collaboration with Stephen King, feels much more of a collaboration than its predecessor, The Talisman, ever felt.)

These novels all have similar approaches; somewhere around the time of The Hellfire Club (perhaps before), Straub deliberately tried to adopt a more "transparent" style, and I've liked him all the better for it. Now I look forward to each release without trepidation (though I can't say I noticed the nearly six-year gap between In the Night Room and A Dark Matter, involved as I was in "catching up").

A Dark Matter is like peanut butter: rich and nutritious but with the potential to make a really great dessert. The body has obviously involved a great deal of design and thought, but there's also an offhandedness to it (and a great deal of very welcome humor) that is refreshing.

Straub is a true craftsman, folding the more horrific elements in with the more mundane and making A Dark Matter one of the few recent horror novels to actually elicit a physical response. Plus, it shows that Straub is still interested in stretching himself and in assimilating new influences, like the surreal portion that he openly acknowledges is inspired by Brian Evenson's The Open Curtain. Some readers may be dissatisfied with the ending, as it doesn't really seem to answer all the questions posed in the narrative, but if the characters themselves are, then who are we mere readers to complain?

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