Friday, February 5, 2010
A Dark Matter
In the pantheon of horror writers, Stephen King sits at the top, a position he has occupied since the late 1970s. There have been few serious challengers to that throne, but one of the authors who come closest is King’s sometime collaborator, Peter Straub. In the early 1980s, Straub wrote one of the great books of the genre, Ghost Story, and has enjoyed great sales success since, often writing outside the horror genre. His latest book is A Dark Matter, which will be released by Doubleday on Tuesday, February the 9th.
Many of the writers of today don’t truly love language. Words are a means to an end with them, a way to force the story out. Not so Peter Straub. His writing reveals a great love for words, simple or obscure. The emphasis on how the story is told as well as what is told makes a book like A Dark Matter into a supposedly mythical creature: a genre novel that is also a literary novel. This comes as no surprise to those of us who are regular Straub readers.
The 1960s, as we all know, was a time of the exploration of freedom, of youth asserting itself, and the rejection of societal norms. It was also a great time for con men who preyed on the intelligent yet naïve students for sex, power, money, or whatever else they wanted. One such of these gurus is named Spencer Mallon, and four high school students, Lee Truax (The Eel), Dilly Olson, Jason Boatman, and Hootie Bly fall prey to his spell. Mallon claims he has arcane knowledge that will cast aside the veil separating this reality from others, and so the four students participate in a ritual with deadly consequences, which leave them scarred as well as gifted: Hootie goes insane, Lee goes blind, Dilly goes to prison and so on.
Years later, the one member of their group who refused to participate in the Mallon business, Lee Harwell, who married Lee Truax, becomes obsessed with learning what happened in the ritual he missed. His own wife won’t talk about it, so one at a time he tracks down the other participants to hear their very different versions of what went on. Knowledge always comes at a price, and Harwell soon realizes the risk he is running in uncovering the secrets.
As I mentioned before, no one really writes like Straub any more. The mystery unveils slowly, through somewhat contradictory testimony. Patience is required of a reader (and possibly access to a dictionary – the crazed Hootie in particular is obsessed with often obscure words. If you’re not careful, you’ll learn something.) but, have that patience, and you will be rewarded. This is not a book about a giant monster smashing Tokyo. It is a book of events that are quieter yet no less horrific, of the toll that secrets take on our lives. I recommend you put down your usual fare and give this a try. Not only is it a good book in a time when they are becoming rare, I’ve got a feeling it’s the sort of book that will hold up well to repeated readings.