The Website of The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field
Locus Online
Sub Menu contents


Saturday, March 6, 2010

Stefan Dziemianowicz reviews Peter Straub

The publication of Peter Straub's The Skylark and A Dark Matter only a handful of months apart gives readers a unique opportunity to see how one of the most talented living writers of fantastic fiction cuts a rough diamond of a novel into a brilliant gem. The two are essentially the same book, save that The Skylark is an earlier draft that weighed in 200 manuscript pages heavier than the tale told in the final trade edition. In Straub's own words, it's "a much looser, sloppier, more wild-eyed version of the book." Straub did this dual publication trick once before with "Mrs. God", an homage to the strange stories of Robert Aickman's that anchored his collection House Without Doors in its novella form, and also appeared in its full short novel length from specialty publisher Donald M. Grant in 1990. Comparing the two versions of his latest, one gets a fascinating glimpse into the creative process, and perhaps an inkling of how Straub conceived the vast backstory for his Millhaven Mythos (referring to the fictional Wisconsin community where so many of his novels are set or begin) from which he periodically carves out novels.

A Dark Matter is not set in Millhaven, but in Madison, and it's primarily the narrative of Lee Harwood, a writer of the same stripe as Tim Underhill, who has figured prominently in (and/or been portrayed as the "author" of) most of Straub's novels since Koko (1988). Harwood achieved bestsellerdom with his thriller The Agents of Darkness, for which he fictionalized the adventures of four high school friends, including the woman who eventually became his wife. Years later, blocked on the writing of his latest novel, Harwood shifts abruptly to writing a memoir in which he hopes to finally divulge the truth about the experience that inspired his bestseller. In order to do this, he decides to reacquaint himself with a close-knit quartet whose circle he was, by choice, only on the periphery of, and hear from their own mouths what happened.

One fall day in 1966, under the influence of a charismatic Svengali named Spencer Mallon, these four friends — Donald "Dilly-O" Olson, Howard "Hootie" Bly, Jason "Boats" Boatman, and Harwood's wife-to-be Lee "The Eel" Truax — joined with three students at the local university in a quasi-occult ceremony in the school's agronomy meadow. Mallon, a shady shaman who had studied up on Cornelius Agrippa (AKA Paracelsus) and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, was of the opinion that through the ceremony they "just might change the world." They did, indeed, though not quite in the positive spiritual way they thought they might. Owing to missed timing (as is later revealed) and Mallon's corrupt motives and ineptness (as is largely suspected) something goes horribly wrong: one of the college students is torn to pieces, another vanishes from the face of the Earth, and the four high school friends are left with emotional and psychological scars that shaped the people whom they have become in their adult lives.

Stories in which friends reconvene as adults to come to terms with a terrifying shared traumatic experience from their youth have been a staple of modern horror fiction since Straub all but introduced the form in 1979 with Ghost Story (and which he acknowledges at one point in the novel with a reference to that tale's femme fatale, Alma Mobley). But instead of arriving at some version of consensual truth, the four friends in A Dark Matter find that they all saw and experienced something different that fateful day. Donald, who becomes Mallon's protégé, became aware of a phalanx of vaguely anthropomorphic doglike creatures who prowl on the periphery of our reality, helping to contain the kind of mischief that irresponsible occultists like Mallon unleash. Hootie, who has become so unbalanced that he is incapable of speaking in anything other passages quoted from novels (significantly The Scarlet Letter, and its ripe rhetoric on sin and evil), saw a dark and menacing otherworld intersect our own. Boats, who has spent much of his adult life working as a professional thief, saw a field stacked with the bloody corpses of young children. The Eel, who has slowly gone blind over the intervening years, ironically saw even more: her consciousness "rose," and from the height it attained she was able to observe the full panorama of horrifying marvels, including an extradimensional door that swallowed one student, and the emergence of hideous demonic entity that tore the other student apart. Straub's skillful juxtaposition and interweaving of each character's story in Rashomon-like fashion helps to suggest a horror so otherworldly and profound that any one person can only glimpse a facet or fragment of it. To try and understand it in its entirety would invite madness.

It's possible to read this rich and inventive novel on many levels, but two major interpretations emerge from Straub's deftly structured narrative. The events of 1966 unfold while the war in Vietnam is raging and student unrest is sparking protests on campus and brutal reprisals against them. Mallon's hope to transform the Earth involves the use of a "sacred violence" to end the violence of the war and the times. Keith Hayward, the student who is slaughtered, is a sociopath and sadist whom Mallon believes can help catalyze his cosmic scheme. But Mallon is neither up to the audacity of his actions nor prepared for the enormity of what he introduces into our world, and Straub implies that the disorder and chaos of the Vietnam era and its aftermath could be attributed to the forces that Mallon unleashed. A Dark Matter fits very comfortably on the same continuum that includes George R.R. Martin's The Armageddon Rag (1985), Stephen Wright's M31 (1989), Elizabeth Hand's Generation Loss (2008), and countless other novels concerned with the dark side of the sixties counterculture and the dreams of transcendence that curdled into nightmares.

Quite possibly, though, Straub is getting at something a little less momentous but a little more salient as regards the tale of modern horror. From her superior vantage point above the agronomy meadow, The Eel observes the rampaging demon inadvertently summoned by Mallon and sees it not as a being of insuperable supernatural Evil, but "the famous Noonday Demon... the savage demon of the second rate, the demon of everyday evil."

No one was ever supposed to see it as it made its way to and fro in the world, causing men to fall off ladders, and babies to stiffen and die, and corn crops to wither, women to lose unborn babies in a bloody flux, drunken drivers to steer into oncoming lanes, husbands to beat wives, women to roast their husbands alive in their beds like cockroaches, old friends to quarrel and separate. It moved through its boundless territory, bringing chaos and disorder, bringing despair.

Straub seems to be saying here that the worst consequences of the event in the agronomy meadow possibly were not the dismemberment of Keith Hayward and the disappearance of the other student — which could only be explained in terms of the supernatural Evil one finds in horror fiction — but the arousal of those indefinable and indistinguishable forces of personal fate that set the characters (like ordinary people) on the path to mediocre adult lives full of disappointment, disillusionment, and the inescapable sense that they live (as Straub eloquently phrases it in The Skylark) "in an empty world aggressively devoid of meaning."

Since the 1960s, the modern horror tale has increasingly shifted its focus from the supernatural menaces that defined the genre from the Gothic through the pulp eras to unsettling expressions of what might be called the dark side of everyday life. The generation of writers who came of age in the 1960s and '70s, among them Straub, gave us a whole new type of horror fiction rooted in the fears of people navigating a world that seemed chaotic, confusing, unpredictable, unrelenting, and full of unforeseeable drama. The body of work they created has largely redefined the iconic monsters and tropes that once summarized supernatural Evil (with a capital "E") in terms of the everyday evil Straub describes in A Dark Matter. His novel is a powerful and eloquent crystallization of the ambitions of the modern horror story.

As regards the differences between the two versions of the novel, The Skylark provides a more detailed linear account of events leading up to the event in the agronomy meadow, and fuller backstories for the characters. In particular, it develops the character of Keith Hayward, and his bond with an uncle who encourages his sociopathy and who himself is a serial killer whose murders inspire insightful discussions among the novel's other characters of the nature of evil. To craft the tale as A Dark Matter, Straub amplified the role played by Lee Harwood and shifted from an omniscient to a more first-person narrative voice. Each novel is very enjoyable on its own. The publication of the two together constitutes a major event in horror publishing this early in the 21st century.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from the March issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

A Dark Matter

Peter Straub

(Doubleday 978-0-385-51638-9, $26.95, 352pp, hc) February 2010

The Skylark

Peter Straub

(Subterranean Press 978-1-59606-271-9, $50.00, 592pp, hc) November 2009



Blogger Prof. Hex said...

Fine review and I look forward to reading the book.

I must point out that Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa were not the same person. Also, I think you dropped a "than" in the sentence "in anything other passages quoted from novels."


March 7, 2010 2:02 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

© 2009 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.