Why is it that none of Peter Straub's books has ever been wholly satisfying? I've always been a little frustrated by his novels, even the one that made him famous (Ghost Story.
) I think thus far Shadowland
has come the closest to indelibility (is that even a word?) for me - but I thought this one might give it a run for the position.Initial reflections: Mr. Straub is a tricky dude. You know the story is going to be a little eerie, tinged with occult overtones, unexplained occurrences, etc. In this instance, there's no straightforward bad guy - Straub makes you question everyone's actions, and avoids easy explanations. Is the otherworldliness a product of the unreliable 40-years-on memories of five childhood friends, then teens caught up in the spell of an itinerant philosopher/psychic/con man? Is the teenager who may be displaying signs of incipient schizophrenia having hallucinations, or is he actually encountering mysterious strangers who whisper warnings in his ears? Is one of the guru's hangers-on merely prone to violence, mentally ill, or possessed by evil?
The one thing I dread is an anticlimactic resolution - where the book misses its mark and sort of fades out at the end, like a sneeze that never gets completed. We'll see.
Outcome: Nope, not it. Another disappointment.A Dark Matter
deals with five teenaged friends and the aftermath, 40+ years later, of a horrific encounter with occult forces. Lee Truax, known to her friends as "The Eel", Howard "Hootie" Bly, Donald "Dilly" Olson, and Jason "Boats" Boatman all fell in love with charismatic metaphysical guru Spencer Mallon and followed him in his quest to reinvent the world to his liking. Only the narrator, Lee Harnell, resisted getting caught up in Mallon's glamour and thus avoided participating in a ritual Mallon said would "change the world" - and did, for all of them.
Decades later, Lee has long been married to The Eel, and is a successful novelist; The Eel has lost her sight, and works with a nonprofit that serves the blind; Dill works the same kind of con his mentor Spencer Mallon did, traveling from college town to college town, sharing his mojo and living off of credulous seekers; Boats is a career thief but has never been caught; and Hootie has spent the past four decades in a mental institution, speaking only in quotes from "The Scarlet Letter" and a dictionary of quirky and obscure words.
Searching for a new writing project to tackle, Lee Harnell is reminded of this period of his youth, and is moved to get in contact with the others, to finally get their stories of what happened on that day - a story even his wife has never revealed. In a Rashomon-like fashion, each recounts what they remember of the group fascination with Mallon, the other young people who shared that fascination, and finally the ritual Mallon conducted.
You know there's going to be a big "reveal" - even as Harnell's old friends share the hallucinatory visions they encountered, the bizarre apparitions seen in the days leading up to the ritual, the increasingly frightening behavior of one of their number - you can tell something big is going to happen.
And it does - except, not really, and what does occur is described in such an obscure and disjointed way that you're left not quite sure what actually happened (if any of them knows), and what it is supposed to mean, and then the book is over. Really? That's it?
You're not supposed to ask, at the end of a book or movie, "what happened to them next?" The work is supposed to be complete unto itself (unless, of course, there are sequels.) Most of the time I don't have any trouble with that. But when the resolution of the book is so unsatisfying (and there's that word again - I find it comes to mind on pretty much all of Straub's books), I can't help wonder - isn't there more to the story? Did you leave something out? OK, so The Eel met God, or something like it - and that's all? Don't we get to know how that has affected her for 40+ years? Has she had a secret mission all this time, unknown to anyone? Will her revelation change her marriage?
I do plan of hanging onto this book and re-reading at some later date. Maybe a re-read, letting me fill in the early hints with the details I now know, will make more sense. Frustrating. Yet I keep reading him.