Not as immediately rewarding as Houses Without Doors or Magic Terror, Peter Straub’s third collection, 2008′s 5 Stories, is comprised of tales that blossom upon reflection. None of the stories collected here are about what they appear to be. The name of the game in 5 Stories, as it is in so much of Straub’s work, is subtext.
The first two stories do away with any semblance of linear storytelling altogether, choosing instead to play with form and structure. “Little Red’s Tango,” ostensibly about an eccentric record collector living in New York City, gradually transforms into an almost Biblical gospel of the tribulations and miracles of Red’s life, culminating in a letter from an acquaintance to someone who has never met Red that is the equivalent of a Pauline epistle. “Lapland, or Film Noir” is another story of a young boy going through something traumatic at a movie theater (see The Throat, “The Juniper Tree,” and “Bunny Is Good Bread”). Here, a young, sensitive boy sits through multiple features of fictional films noirs, all of which seem to occur in a place called Lapland. The implications of that name, given what happens to little boys in cinemas in Straub’s fiction, is shuddersome. Bits of the films are missing, replaced only with ellipses, perhaps an indication of the terrible things happening to the boy that he wishes not to remember, and that have caused him to miss bits of the films. The story culminates in a visit from the ghost of Alan Ladd, Hollywood hero, who like a guardian angel reassures the young boy that whatever happened back there in the movie theater, whether it was the violence onscreen or the violence done to the boy in the dark, is not his fault. (It took me a long time to wrap my mind around what’s happening in this story because it’s not written in a recognizable narrative form, and I may have interpreted it wrong, but I’m satisfied with my interpretation.)
The remaining three stories are told in a more traditional narrative form. “Donald, Duck!” is a fun noir tale of a gold digger targeting a rich family, only they’re all Disney characters. “The Geezers” may be my favorite story of the bunch. In it, a group of old friends — old in both senses of the word — react to the death of another, newer friend. The story is entirely one of implication, with just enough clues about what might have happened sprinkled throughout to put the pieces together afterward. (Straub, to his credit, refrains from doing it for you.) “Mr. Aickman’s Air Rifle,” the only story in the collection one could rightfully call horror (despite the fact that 5 Stories won a Bram Stoker Award!), is a masterful ghost story, cherry-topped with an absolutely gorgeous visit from the dripping corpse of Virginia Woolf, though the revelation at the end may not come as a surprise to savvy readers. Then again, it’s always about the journey, isn’t it, not the destination?
5 Stories is a slim volume at 125 pages, but the tales it contains aren’t Straub’s most accessible. While I’d happily recommend it for longtime Straub readers and lovers of his work, I wouldn’t recommend it as a good place to start if you’re new to his oeuvre. Consider 5 Stories part of the advanced course.