Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Heart of A Dark Matter

A lot of the time, I think working with Stephen King on The Talisman was both the best and the worst thing Peter Straub ever did for his career. Sure, co-writing two books with the most successful horror novelist of all time probably brought a lot more attention to his works, and he was already a bestselling author as well, but it also seems to have turned a lot of those potential new readers off. When I first read The Talisman, it was in the heights of my middle-school obsession with King, when I was reading through every book at the pace of one or two a week. The Talisman was the first one that seemed like a struggle to get through, and I found it horribly dull for the first 100 pages or so. It was the only one that I came close to putting down aside from The Stand*. At this time I was well into my Stephen King obsession, having devoured 7 or 8 novels and a couple of his story collections, and I had loved all of them, so I assumed the blame must lie with this Peter Straub guy, whoever he was.

He's this guy

It wasn't until I was in my mid-twenties that I actually decided to read something by Peter Straub himself. I started at the obvious spot, with Ghost Story, and it was a revelation. It was a ghost story with a sense of melancholy and nostalgia that I hadn't even realized I was missing from other works. It had a sadness, and a sense of history that I found very moving. Of course ghosts, if they existed, would be sad. They remained stuck in a prison of memory, unable to truly interact with the world of the living, but unwilling to let it go. I will say that the novel maybe doesn't hold up very well; I tried re-reading it a couple years ago, and it felt a bit flat. In particular it suffered from some Victorian sexual mores and unfortunately prudish attitudes towards women, which is not a problem with other Straub books. But that sense of loss and melancholy was still there, so I could at least see what had charmed me way back when.

I then moved through the Blue Rose Trilogy, comprising Koko, Mystery, and The Throat. The three books are intertwined, but not in the way I expected. One book doesn't so much lead into the next as it does bleed into the background. The trilogy's collection of unreliable narrators, shifting perspectives and meta fiction(one of the books may have been fiction written by one of the characters) was another sort of revelation. From there, I sampled other works as I had the time or inclination. It's a given that I'll read any new Stephen King book shortly after it comes out, but as much as I liked Straub's books, I only sporadically picked them up.

In retrospect, it's easy to see why Stephen King and Peter Straub became friends and collaborators. I think Straub is the more virtuosic writer of the two - Not better, just fancier, with more flourishes and narrative tricks that he likes to indulge in - but they both seem to operate on adjacent wavelengths. Their tastes are different; Straub is the bourgeois, upper middle class dandy, who enjoys jazz and wine and lovingly writes about a quiet, refined life of not-quite-luxury. King, on the other hand, is the blue collar everyman, who enjoys AC/DC, cheeseburgers, and trashy reality TV. His characters inhabit a more rough and tumble world of suburban wastelands and rural shacks. Change the trappings, however, and the two become remarkably similar. 

That's not to say they're exactly alike. Stephen King is much more interested in the explicitly supernatural, and his stories develop with an understandable logic and cruel cause-and-effect momentum. Peter Straub frequently deals with the supernatural, but just as often the only monsters in his stories are human. However, even in his paranormal books he tends to push those elements into the background while his actual style has a tendency to steer towards the lyrical and elegiac. Straub has a way of making the normal seem bizarre and the bizarre seem everyday so that I'm often surprised whenever one of his books features actual, undeniable fantastic events. Anyone looking to compare and contrast the two authors, to experience their similarities while also noting the differences in execution, could probably do no better than to read two of their more recent efforts, Revival and A Dark Matter.


Stephen King's Revival features a string of his personal obsessions; a stand-in main character that allows King to romanticize his own memories of youth, ridiculously idealized young love, blatant pop culture references, a tragic accident that leads to a substance abuse problem, and a main character who's artistic growth plays a central role in the story(usually this main character is a writer, but here he's a musician, allowing King to experience the alternate life he's flirted with since the '80s). Peter Straub's A Dark Matter could also be seen as a laundry list of the author's fixations; an author main character(a trait both King and Straub share), frequent descriptions of fine food and art, a cross country journey in which the mystery is pieced together from multiple sources, nested flashbacks, a decades-spanning story, and a fascination with the personal histories of all of his characters. Both books revolve around singular supernatural events(though in Revival the events keep continuing), and both books are written from the point of view of someone only tangentially related to those events. 

In Revival the narrator is someone who only occasionally encounters the person responsible for the dramatic crux of the story, and he's never privy to every piece - or even most - of the information. In A Dark Matter the narrator missed out on the fantastic event that introduced his friends to the otherworldly, and sets about stitching together the story decades after the fact. Both could be considered Lovecraftian in nature, dealing with horror on a cosmic scale, looking beyond the veil that separates our world from the unseen howling void surrounding us at all times. Straub doesn't traffic in the Lovecraft mythos, though, building a story that takes it's cues from older mythologies. King, on the other hand, is very consciously playing with the tropes of Lovecraft, bolting a Frankenstein story onto the basic ideas of the Cthulhu mythos.

Of the two, my heart lies with A Dark Matter. In general I'm more of a Stephen King fan, but I have to admit that Revival is not Stephen King at the top of his game. I began reading King when I was in elementary school, and have continued my entire life, so at this point I'm more than willing to just read whatever he puts out. Even if the story isn't successful, I find his style engaging, entertaining, and comforting. I've disliked plenty of Stephen King books, but I've never disliked the actual act of reading them. Reviva
l, when all is said and done, is a conceptual misfire. The decision to focus on an ancillary character to the actual main story isn't a bad one, but it seems a bit oddly utilized. The character has frequent interactions with a great cosmic mystery, and yet writes page after page about playing gigs at state fairs. He consigns the death of his father to less words than he uses to describe falling asleep in the theater during Heathers. The narrator's priorities make no sense in the larger context of the book.

A Dark Matter, on the other hand, may be the ultimate Peter Straub book, building to what could be seen as the author's final word on the supernatural in general. It also takes his love of exploring the history of his fictional people and locales to it's logical conclusion, as the story becomes almost a horror version of Rashomon. A lot of critics seemed to get annoyed with the half finished, scattershot feel of certain passages, but I got a lot out of it. The book is presented, at times, like raw research for a book the main character will be writing. At one point the narrator includes an unfinished short story he had written previously in an earlier attempt to understand the event his friends had experienced, which was a detail I loved while others seemed jolted out of the story by the drastic change in narrators and tone. Straub apparently cut the story down by several hundred pages, excising a lot of information that may have explained events more fully, but I can't imagine it would have been more satisfactory. Some of that material has made it's way elsewhere, most notably into A Special Place, which details the history of one of the more disturbing and enigmatic secondary characters. He also published the longer, less edited, looser version of the book in a limited edition titled Skylark, which is definitely on my list of things to track down.

At the end, at the heart of it all, A Dark Matter takes the melancholy that drew me to Straub in the first place and twists it slightly, coming up with a much brighter heart than I expected. Not every shadow wants to kill us, not all nightmares are real, and sometimes the most irredeemable monsters can show kindness.

* I first started reading The Stand in early 1993, putting me near the end of my first year in high school. As I read further into the opening chapters, detailing the emergence of the virus and the swiftness with which it spread, I began to fall ill with a respiratory virus, very much like the one described in the book. That may not have been enough to completely turn me off the story, because even at that age I was aware of psychosomatic responses. But unluckily for me, around this same time the news started covering what they called the Four Corners Flu, so called because of the location most of the cases came from; the border areas of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. The Four Corners Flu was a respiratory disease of unknown origin that came on like the flu but could suddenly turn fatal, as the victim's lungs filled with fluid. It didn't spread very far; In the end only 24 cases were reported, but fully half of them died, and the reports came in such quick succession that I seem to remember it being a huge story all spring and into the summer. As I was reading The Stand, about a superflu accidentally set loose by the US government, an illness that kills when its victims lungs fill with fluid, my kind uncle was watching these news reports with me and speculating about the preponderance of military installations in the area, and the possibilities of government experiments run amok. It was too much for me. My sickness and the everyday reveal of a new victim, a new theory. I was convinced I was witnessing the actual birth of a new superbug that would devastate the world and kill my friends, my family, and probably me. I began to think seriously about what I would do if my friends began to die. I pondered into the night the probability that I would somehow live, how I would survive once everyone I knew and loved was dead. I fantasized that somehow I would live, and somehow Susan Hill(name changed to protect the innocent) would survive as well. But in the end that faint fantasy lost out against the much more real and ominous nightmares that seemed to be just on the horizon, and I returned the book to the library. It would be several years before I dared to open it again.

1 comment:

Rik Tod Johnson said...

Nice piece. I gave up on both authors ages ago, though as we have discussed, I am always close to picking up reading them again. The last Straub I read was Mystery, so I never finished the trilogy. King I have flirted with reading off and on, but I need to find a new entry point without going back to the start and reading everything. - Rik