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The author Peter Straub is an American writer who has written many novels in the horror genre including some collaboration with Stephen King, one of his dear friends. Other of his novels can fall into the sci-fi genre and occasionally under thrillers. As a long-term writer he researches each book carefully and sometimes it may come across as too wordy or pretentious, when it's more likely that Straub has allowed his great expertise of writing and words in general to show through. He is a very knowledgeable and sometime sophisticated writer and this shows better when he's writing on such topics as war or thrillers.
Unfortunately the books he has written with Stephen King can lure the reader into thinking that his contribution is equal to King's, when it cannot be considered as more or less, just different. A newcomer to Straub's many novels would be better to start with either his short stories or a novel like Shadowland. This would give a better picture than I could paint, since I'm familiar with his work and therefore biased. This introduction is meant to serve as a warning to those who expect a completely different book than the write-up allows. It's accurate to a degree but I wonder whether the person who penned it ever read the book.
Author Lee Harwell leads a fairly settled life with his books doing well and his wife (also Lee) who has been blind for some fifteen years, away a lot working for the American Association for the Blind. Throughout the book the wife Lee is often referred to as Lee Truax or the Eel to ease confusion so I'll use Eel where necessary. Harwell is writing a new book but it's not going well and when a strange occurrence involving a disgruntled tramp reminds him of something in his past, he's shaken out of his complacency and forced to take a long, hard look at his life.
What he sees combined with the acquisition of an unpublished manuscript by a dead cop, sets him on a course that will have long-lasting repercussions and change his life completely. When he was a senior at Madison next to a college campus, most of his best friends including his girlfriend, were taken in by a self-appointed guru, Spencer Mallon who gained both their love and loyalty, including sexual favors from the two girls. Lee stayed out of the group but wasn't completely blind to what was happening. On a night in October Spencer took the followers to a nearby meadow where he promised a ritual would bring great revelations, but although something does happen, it culminates in one boy being torn to pieces and another vanishing completely.
The survivors don't get away Scot-free either. Each one is affected in different ways, but somehow this fails to make any impact on Lee and the Eel, except for her later blindness. As Lee emerges from his self-imposed amnesia years later, his purpose is to bring each of the friends stories together in an attempt to understand what did happen all those years ago and possibly solve another mystery, that of the Lady-killer whose story was never told.
Back to the Sixties.
Authors such as Straub and King, along with many others in a similar genre, set quite a few of their books in the era. Being a teenager in the sixties affected young people on both sides of the Atlantic, but it did affect Americans more because of the Vietnam War. Straub served in that war and many of his books attest to his experiences. But before the draft many students engaged in protest marches and sit-ins. Some of these became violent with the police being brutal and a lot of students turned to the Eastern religions of the time and also used drugs to expand their minds. Another way to uncover the 'mysteries' was to join groups and follow gurus. Many of these were conmen but a few had a little psychic knowledge and dabbled in the occult. Straub's story takes this to it's limits with A Dark Matter and the book can be stunning in it's depth at times.
Of course there were always people who stayed out of the whole 60's 'happening" and I use that word because it was a huge experience and started the roll and roll era from it's early roots of the 50's. Never before had teenagers had such a voice in their schooling, their surroundings and their future. It changed many things but it did generate some casualties with drug-induced mania and children born with drugs in their systems. Mental health problems tripled over the next forty years and it's possible the long-term effects may never be fully understood.
That's one of the reasons why Straub's novel is such an insight into those times and the aftermath of such experiments. The narrator, Lee, stayed apart but was drawn in by his friends and his wife later on. The aftermath takes him places he never dreamed of but also he is the one that's grounded and therefore can take the psychic kickback if there is such a thing. Dabblers with the Ouji Board might know a bit about my theory. So the story continues with each long chapter telling a tale of one individual's experiences. As they tell their stories they also learn something about themselves and a change occurs with most of them.
Straub has the art of getting into the deeper side of people and the characters in this book are quite different to what you might expect. He's used his own experiences of the era and added the changes wrought by growing older, but not essentially wiser, just better controlled by age and fate. It's hard not to like his characters but to do that you have to wade through some excessive language at times. Straub is intelligent and has to restrain his fervour at times. So he gives us the wife and husband team with the Eel being the bridge between the friends. Both are likable and you want to know their stories.
There is Don Olsen who was Spencer Mallon's most ardent follower who ends up broken and in and out of prison. Jason (Boats) Boatman, another thief turned security counselor. Meredith Bright, the starlet type who ends up with her looks but essentially empty. And finally Howard (Hootie) Bly whose experiences sent him mad and incarcerated in a mental hospital for most of his adult life. These are the main characters that survive, the student nearest tells the others the fate of those who didn't survive at the time of the ritual.
In trying to give a better overview of the story and maybe it's purpose I've allowed a bit more of the plot than usual, but if you expect a perfect ending then this might not be a suitable book for you. Apart from Straub's love of leaving the ending open to interpretation, there isn't anything that would work without scrambling the story. It's not an easy book to get into, so if you want an easy read try another book or even another author. If you want a book that peeks under the surface of things and shows the edge of wonder then boy are you in the right place!
I was a bit disappointed that the end did seem to trail off rather than finish with a stronger statement, but it didn't spoil the rest of the book. I struggled at times since although I love the author's work, I sometimes fail to get his allusions to other authors. His words are lengthy when easier ones would serve, but that doesn't spoil the story. So all in all I'd give this four stars and a recommendation for lovers of mystery stories who don't mind taking a while to get there.
My copy is a hard-back but you can get this at a reasonable price in most large bookshops online. As always my preferred stores is Amazon where you can also get this in paperback and Kindel version. It is a long read at 397 pages so be aware of that.
Thanks for reading.
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When I received by Real Readers a book to review that was written by Peter Straub, I got excited for I had already read and enjoyed his two works with Stephen King, namely the 'Black House' and the 'Talisman' (although I never quite understood how it is possible to co-author a fictional story). Unfortunately, the book under review, entitled 'A Dark Matter', did not live up to my expectations.
"Terrifying...impossible to put down" writes Stephen King; "A new horror epic" states Sunday Express; boring and pointless, I say. I am an avid reader who loves crime and horror stories, but this book is neither. It is a rather weak, badly planned social drama, that is not sure what it wants to be: a horror/crime/drama/serial killer story? In the end, it becomes a mismatch of everything. There is a supernatural element indeed, which has cleverly been hyped by the marketing team and the media, but the only terrifying thing in this book is how slow and pointless it is, to the point of mental torture for the reader who tries to finish it.
The premise sounds interesting and if developed in a different way it could have been a success: in the 1960s a charming hippie 'guru' type called Spencer Mallon, with an interest in ancient languages and the occult, arrives in an American town and gets the devotion of three college kids and a group of four teenagers. His vision is to organise some kind of a ritual in a local meadow, which however goes terribly wrong. As a result, one kid disappears and another is found dismembered. The surviving kids never reveal many details and they just seem to go on with their lives, but each one of them was traumatised by the event in a different way. Forty years later, writer Lee Harwell, once a teenager who escaped Mallon's charm and did not take part in any of the events, tries to finally find out what happened back then and why it damaged his friends so much. He tries to talk to them and persuade them to open up, and this becomes the main theme of the book.
Supposedly, main character Lee acquired a renewed interest in the events in the meadow when his other book projects did not go very well with his publisher, and this must reflect Straub's situation in real life. According to Wikipedia, he published an earlier, longer draft of 'A Dark Matter' in a limited edition under the title 'The Skylark'. It seems to the reader that 'A Dark Matter' is the publisher's effort to save the story by editing it, but the editing was not extensive enough or successful second time round either. Although the first person narrator is Lee, the story gets told by the point of view of his friends as well, but there are numerous repetitions and incoherent ramblings that certainly don't create "brilliant psychological portraits". I still believe that Stephen King has a unique unsurpassed charisma in developing well-rounded characters in his tales. The characters here are not well-developed; we only get a glimpse of their young selves and then a glimpse of their middle-aged ones and I did not feel connected to any of them. We never find out what happened to Mallon either. His character remains very one-dimensional and then disappears from the story.
The first 40 pages are quite confusing, and Straub uses pretentious language and an inconsistent narrative style throughout the book. In some parts the language is simple and the narration flows, yet in other parts the language gets twisted and the narration confusing as he draws quotes from the American 19th century novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne that mean nothing to the non-American reader not familiar with his work. The pace of the book is uneven, with loads of unnecessary padding. As the story goes on, Straub releases very few new information. In reality, the story progresses in the last 60 pages and the reader can't help but feeling that this could be a short 100 page novella instead of a struggling 439 page novel. When the last character finally gives a more complete narration regarding what happened in the meadow all those years ago and why it was traumatic, many parts seem silly and certainly not horrifying as expected. How critics can compare this failure to Akira Kurosawa 's masterpiece 'Rashomon', at least according to Amazon US, escapes me and I consider it an insult to the Japanese film master.
This book was a most boring and pointless read and I cannot recommend it to any horror story fan. It may be more suitable for those who like slow-paced dramas with a slight supernatural hint.
Peter Straub is an American writer whose horror fiction has apparently received many prestigious awards. How did he get it so wrong here? You can find out more about him at http://www.peterstraub.net/
Peter Straub, 'A Dark Matter', London: Phoenix, paperback edition 2011, £6.99. pp. 439. ISNB 978-0-7538-2882-3.
Many thanks to Real Readers for providing a review copy.