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Straubathon: A Special Place: The Heart of a Dark Matter

Longtime readers of Peter Straub’s fiction know that often the novel or story you just read isn’t the whole story. It’s a complete story, sure, but there’s always more lurking beneath the surface. For instance, Straub’s stories “Blue Rose” and “The Ghost Village” tie directly into the characters and events of his novel Koko. “The Juniper Tree” and “Bunny Is Good Bread” expand on the shared backgrounds of the hero and villain of The Throat. And now, with the stand-alone novella A Special Place: The Heart of a Dark Matter, we have the background story of one of A Dark Matter‘s secondary but no less important characters, the deeply troubled college student Keith Hayward.

When we meet Keith in A Special Place, he’s only twelve years old, but already under the thrall of his uncle Tillman Hayward, a.k.a. infamous serial killer The Ladykiller, so named for his choice of victims. Tillman sees something in Keith right away when he learns his nephew has been capturing and killing local pets, a kindred spirit in the world of the psychopathic, and so he takes the boy under his wing and starts to teach him how to be just like his uncle. Keith will need a special place that only he knows about, someplace he can go to act as his true self. But Keith isn’t quite the loner Tillman is. He wants a friend. One day he rescues the school misfit, Tomek Miller, from being urinated on in the boy’s room by school bullies. From then on, Miller is Keith’s friend. Or slave is more like it. The things Keith puts Miller through — bloody and degrading things Miller goes along with because he has no other friends in the world and thus no concept of what is appropriate in a friendship and what isn’t — are far worse than any school bully would have done to him. In this way, I’m reminded of the master-slave relationship in another fine serial killer novel, Joyce Carol Oates’ Zombie.

The novella is filled with Straub’s signature attention to detail and masterful character work. One of the joys of reading A Special Place right on the heels of A Dark Matter is recognizing scenes from Keith’s life as part of the vision the Eel had in the novel when she pierced the veil and assumed the astral form of the skylark. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, all the better!) Hospital orderly Antonio’s cameo in the diner scene toward the end of the novella works nicely to tie the two pieces together, though I have to admit I wanted something a little more at the end, an oomph moment that would have me scrambling for A Dark Matter once more. Short of a cameo by Doity Toid or Badshite, though, I’m not sure how Straub could have accomplished that. But the ending did leave me grasping for something I felt should have been there but wasn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. A Special Place: The Heart of a Dark Matter is an amazing piece of fiction, on par with some of Straub’s other great novellas like “Pork Pie Hat” or “Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff.” I recommend it highly. And even though it is not necessary for the enjoyment of the novella, I do recommend reading A Dark Matter first, for the full effect.

Straubathon: A Dark Matter

I’ve read reviews of Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter that claim the novel is a meditation on the nature of evil. I don’t see it that way, though the nature of evil is certainly discussed during the novel’s climax. Instead, I see A Dark Matter as being about something else one of the characters mentions: humanity’s insatiable and unique need for story, for narrative.

Like a number of Straub’s novels, what we’re reading in A Dark Matter is actually the novel written by one of its characters, Lee Harwell. Lee has been haunted all his life by something that happened back in 1966 to his friends and girlfriend (now wife). It seems one of those wandering 1960s spiritual gurus came to their university town to broaden minds and sleep with students, this one a charmer by the name of Spencer Mallon. Lee’s girlfriend and two of his friends get caught in Mallon’s web, and one night they take part in a ritual in a meadow near campus. A ritual that changes everything in their lives, leaves one kid dead, another missing, a third teetering toward insanity, a fourth slowly going blind, and a secret shared between only those who were there. Lee himself wasn’t there. As he writes, “I had missed the boat, definitively, and so had been spared the mysterious experience that came to define their lives. There was a magic circle and I stood beyond its periphery.” Of course, something else stood quite literally beyond that magic circle’s periphery too. Something from the hidden world. A demon, perhaps, or more than one. Now, many years later, Lee wants to know the truth of what happened that night. He tracks down the remaining participants in an attempt to put it all together, once and for all, and find out if Mallon’s line of bullshit might have been real after all.

This being a Peter Straub novel, the answer is far more complicated than yes or no. And at the novel’s heart is this question: How do you craft a coherent narrative out of something that by its very nature is too based in the realm of sensation, too unknowable, to ever be forced into such a structure? How do you make sense of something that cannot make sense? What happened in that meadow, the different yet interlocking experiences each of the participants endured, the trip beyond the veil that Lee’s girlfriend takes instead of Mallon, none of it is meant to be molded into a story, but Lee tries to because he must. He tries to not just because crafting narrative is his job as a writer, but because if he doesn’t he will never truly understand the wife he so loves. There will always be a gulf between them he can never cross. By giving the novel a final scene that is not a sting in the tail, that is not a climactic battle between the forces of good and evil, but is rather a scene of domestic bliss between the two of them, Straub seems to say it doesn’t matter what happened in 1966. What matters is now. What matters is the ever-growing, ever-evolving narrative between people.

Dense, non-linear, and at times written in a stream of consciousness, A Dark Matter isn’t Straub’s easiest novel, but it’s indubitably rewarding. (And, in this reader’s opinion, underrated and maybe even misunderstood.) Like the best Straub novels, it’s richly layered and open to endless interpretation. Why, for example, is Lee’s girlfriend/wife also named Lee, and nicknamed Eel? Why do he and she look so remarkably alike that he is nicknamed Twin? Why is the image of a glass of water on a table in the sunlight so important to not just our narrator Lee but, in a completely different context, his wife Lee? Why does hapless Spencer Mallon’s last name hint at malevolence? Why the recurring image of a severed hand? You won’t get all the answers in A Dark Matter, but that’s kind of the point. There’s a bigger world out there than we can see, the novel says. It was the 1960s, and the answers were blowing in the wind.

(On a personal note, it’s hard to believe how far I’ve come with the Straubathon. A Dark Matter was published in 2010. I’m almost up to date!)

Straubathon: 5 Stories

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.

Straubathon: In the Night Room

“If you’re going to write a book about Lily Kalendar,” a character tells Timothy Underhill in Peter Straub’s 2004 bravura novel In the Night Room, “you’d better make it the book of your life.”

How can one review this novel without unearthing all the hidden gems better left for the reader to discover? I suppose I can start by saying In the Night Room may be the most creative sequel I’ve read. A direct sequel to lost boy lost girl, we meet up with writer Timothy Underhill again about a year later, and discover that the novel lost boy lost girl is actually his own, written to help him get over the disappearance and likely murder of his nephew Mark. The ending he supplied in that novel is only half-true. Mark’s body was never found, but Lily Kalendar never came to spirit the boy away to somewhere safe. (Of course, many of the events of In the Night Room are likely fabrications along these lines, too. I suspect we will never know the reality of Timothy Underhill’s life.)

You could write a graduate school thesis on the use of stand-ins in this novel. Willy Patrick, the woman whose life intersects with Underhill’s in astonishing ways through the course of the narrative, is a stand-in for Mark (she shares his face), but also for Lucy Cleveland, who is herself a stand-in for Lily Kalendar. Willy’s friend Tom is very much a stand-in for Tim himself, much like that other Tom, Tom Pasmore, was in some ways a stand-in for Tim in Straub’s novel Mystery (or Mysteries, as Tim calls it in his world). Willy’s dastardly fiancee, Mitchell Faber, is a stand-in for Jasper Kohle, the crazed fan who’s stalking Tim, and who is himself a stand-in for Joseph Kalendar, the dead serial killer whose memory haunts both lost boy lost girl and In the Night Room. And, of course, Timothy Underhill himself is kind of an emotional and psychological stand-in, if you will, for Peter Straub, whom Tim calls his “collaborator.” This use of stand-ins won’t make sense to those who haven’t read the novel yet, but I don’t want to dig into it too deeply here for fear of accidentally and prematurely unearthing the gems I mentioned. I will say that there’s a reason Willy wears Mark’s face, and why Tim, a middle-aged gay man, falls immediately in love with her. We all love our heroes, after all; writers even more so.

If this sounds complicated, I haven’t even mentioned the emails Tim is receiving from dead people, nor the angry angel following him around, nor the concept of the “perfect book.” This last one is an idea that resonated enormously with me, as I’m sure it does with any writer who reads In the Night Room. Basically, the idea is that through a sort of cosmic slip-up, every time a book is published, a few copies of the perfect version of that book slip into the print run; the perfect, unsullied version that was in the writer’s mind when he or she first came up with it, before his or her own limited vocabulary, second thoughts, hurried writing sessions, and moments of narrative laziness corrupted it. The concept of this cosmically perfect book is so beautiful I had to close the novel a moment for fear of weeping at the thought.

It took me a week to gather my thoughts after reading In the Night Room, and I still feel like I haven’t done it proper justice. But there’s no way to capture this novel in a snapshot. If lost boy lost girl was about death, then In the Night Room is about creation. It starts off negating the events of lost boy lost girl, then circles around the reaffirm them. Life, death, creation, destruction–it all exists in the borderland between reality and fiction, just as the truth does. Throughout Straub’s greatest novels–Ghost Story, Koko, The Throat–we saw only glimpses of the author in his characters. In the Night Room, perhaps even more so than lost boy lost girl, doesn’t just open the author’s ideas to us, it opens his soul to us. In writing a book about Lily Kalender, Peter Straub has made it the book of his life.