Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Dark Matter by Peter Straub

A Dark MatterPeter Straub has been one of my favorite authors for a very long time.  I like the horror genre, within certain limits, but Straub goes beyond mere horror, into the rarely achieved realm of mortal dread, which is so much more effective than a good scare. 

Beyond that, he's a damned good writer in the best literary sense, with a real sense of poetry that manages to convey impressions of the eternal and the sacred, instead of just plot and character.  As such, his novels sometimes be very difficult to review, because their true value is so ethereal.

Straub's usual mode of expression is Gothic; not in the sense of frightened damsels in filmy nightclothes, but more in the Southern Faulknerian tradition - stories of past events that maintain an inescapable stranglehold on the present.  Past works, such as the Blue Rose Trilogy (Mystery, Koko, and The Throat) and Ghost Story have explored how unresolved matters have a way of dragging one back into the past to be confronted, often in a surreal and terrifying way.  A Dark Matter is no different.

Lee Harwell is a modestly successful Chicago author.  Forty years ago, his wife-to-be (also named Lee, and known as The Eel) and four high school classmates participated in a mysterious rite orchestrated by charismatic late 60's guru Spencer Mallon.  Exactly what happened that night remains unclear, because Harwell did not participate, but of the only other people present (two college students), one disappeared forever, and the other was torn apart. 

Lee's classmates were also permanently changed - Don Olson, apprenticed to Mallon, vanished with him in the aftermath.  Jason Boatman went from being a talented shoplifter to a bitter professional thief.  Howard Bly has been in a mental institiution for four decades.  And his wife, The Eel, has gone blind.  Now, after a chance encounter brings back to Harwell the buried horror of that enigmatic night, he decides to find out what really happened.

Further discussion of the plot would be unrevealing, because what Lee discovers is that each of those present that night has seen something different, and all of what they have seen is impossibly surreal.  This is where Straub's talent for the otherworldly attains full force.  Many of his previous novels have focused on what one of his characters once called "the world beneath the world" - the true, absolute, and insensible realm that constantly lurks behind the thin scrim of what humanity consenually defines as reality.  What lies there is inimical to sanity and safety, and that place is where Spencer Mallon unwittingly lead his devoted followers.

The beauty of this concept lies in its poetical imagery and its ambiguity - here good and evil, beauty and horror, love and hatred, are the same thing, tied together in eternity, and definable only by the eye of the beholder.  In this reality, what you depart with is just exactly what you bring in, though is may weigh more on the way out.  Sometimes much more.  In the end, Lee Harwell will get his answers, but perhaps the most important thing he learns is how fortunate he was, and is, to have remained outside the circle of his friends one night in 1966.

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