Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Dark Matter, by Peter Straub

It's like this. You will like or dislike this book depending on your expectations.  If you're expecting the kind of hackle-raising horror that is often associated with this author, you may be disappointed.  If you are expecting a slam-bang, linear narrative in which all is revealed, you probably won't want to read it. It is really not so much a novel of horror but more of a look at the whole concept of the connectivity of good and evil, so if you come at it from that angle, you will definitely get much more out of it than if you think you're getting say, a book along the lines of Straub's Julia or If You Could See Me Now

But if you're willing to put in the time and you can deal with a different approach to writing than you're used to seeing with this author, then it just might work out to be a good read, but this is not a passive book -- meaning that the reader has work to do here as well. 

The crux of this novel hinges on events that happened in the late 60s in Madison, Wisconsin. A group of high-school friends meet a strange and charismatic figure named Spencer Mallon, and find themselves held in thrall by his teachings.  With the exception of the narrator of this story, Lee Harwell, all of the kids go off with Mallon to be part of a ritual 40 years ago, accompanied by three other people, also followers of Mallon.  What happened at that ritual is what Harwell, later in life, wants to determine. His wife, also Lee (but called "the Eel") was there, but over all of this time, has refused to let him in on the details. Little by little he gathers the story in pieces from all of the various participants with two exceptions: one person who was suspected, even in the 60s, of being a serial killer, and a friend of his who went missing.  The book blurbs (and most reviews of this book) note that this is done in a "Rashomon" style, which is an apt description of how Harwell is able to glean an insight into not only what happened, but why things turned out as they did for each and every one of Mallon's groupies later in life.  

This is a work of metafiction, in which the author (Lee Harwell) is gathering information and retelling the story for a book he is writing. This sent up a flag for me -- can we really trust this guy in relating this information to the readers -- meaning, is Harwell a reliable narrator here? Also, this is mostly a character, rather than plot-driven novel, since each of the people involved have different aspects of the story to relate. While this is a cool approach, I was left with a sense of something lacking in most of the people involved that would provide more depth to this novel, with one exception, the kid who turned out to be the serial killer. Hmm.  I was also happy to find Tim Underhill mentioned in this novel, since he's been one of my favorite characters since the Koko years. 

Overall, it's a good novel, although often a bit repetitious and thus frustrating sometimes early on, but stick with it. What Straub is trying to say here may not be new, but it is worth the time you put in to read the book. His approach is different but a good one. I don't know that I would specifically label it horror, but more of a psychological suspense with elements of the supernatural involved.


  1. As soon as you mentioned Rashomon, I could tell that this probably wasn't a book for me. That movie drives me batty.

    This is a really well thought out review, thanks.

  2. You're welcome. Rashomon is actually a kind of cool movie, in the sense that so many film makers started making movies based on that idea.

    Thanks for your comment!


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