Thursday, 17 March 2011

25/111 – A Dark Matter by Peter Straub

I was interested in reading this after Pete had begun to, and had said he was enjoying it quite a bit. I was also interested in reading something by Peter Straub because I have read a couple of collaborations between him and Stephen King: The Talisman and Black House. However in the end he didn’t really like it that much, so gave me his copy to do what I like with. I decided to read it.

The style is similar to Stephen King, in some ways. Told from the point of view of a writer, looking back on his childhood and looking for answers to a creepy, slightly supernatural mystery he has never understood. All devices that Stephen King uses. I didn’t like the style quite so much – there was something a bit different, which is hard to place. I can’t quite stop comparing the two authors in my mind, for obvious reasons.

Lee is a successful novelist, married to a blind woman, also named Lee. I will refer to them as Lee and lady-Lee from here. As teenagers they belonged to a group of friends who one day became seduced by Spencer Mallon, a kind of spiritual guru offering all sorts of nonsensical pearls of wisdom to the star-struck teenagers. Lee decides not to join the group, and gets left behind a little. Meanwhile, Mallon recruits everyone else to help him perform some kind of ritual that he claims will change the world. Afterwards, one boy is dead, another missing, and another confined to an asylum for the next thirty years. Lady-Lee refuses ever to speak of the events with Lee, until as an adult, he decides to investigate.

I love occult-y storylines. Not in a dark romance kind of way, with vampires and werewolves screwing each other, but in more of an H.P. Lovcraft-ian kind of way. The idea that there is another, much more horrible universe is something that I do not believe in, and yet… I sort of do. Allusions to these darker places are made frequently in Stephen King’s and Lovecraft’s writing,  and they freak the fuck out of me. I think the best description I have encountered is written by Stephen King, where he describes our world as a kind of bag. An old, leather bag, which is not worn through anywhere, but just worn… thin. And through those thin places, sometimes it’s possible that something can make itself seen, or with the right prompt, come through. In A Dark Matter, it is the group, led by Spencer Mallon, who conjure up this other place and allow things to slip through into their world.

There is something about this idea that I find incredibly primal, and ancient. I am drawn to it and repulsed by it at the same time. The rites and rituals have an attraction and at the same time are utterly horrifying. I can imagine staring into another world and my hair going white on the spot and immediately transforming into a lunatic. I haven’t even been able to bring myself to read any H.P. Lovecraft since I was a teenager - that’s how much it frightens me. Some excellent, but supremely creepy stories by Stephen King involving these ideas include ‘N’ in Just After Sunset and Crouch End in Nightmares and Dreamscapes, and of course, The Mist.

Anyway, onto the book. I’m not sure how I felt about it. There were some good elements, but they didn’t all fit together in the way that I was hoping. The narrator, Lee, seems to be the main focus of the book, and I wish there had been more genuine perspectives from the other characters. It was too much about him. I think that towards the last quarter of the novel I was also becoming very frustrated and a bit bored with the constant re-tellings of the night of the ritual. The last hundred pages are too long and drawn-out and I found myself skipping over needless passages, like the description of ten pages or so involving the group coming together one final time for lady-Lee to tell her side of the story. 

Having said that, there were some really good bits - lots of creepiness and his writing is good all round. It was mostly just a couple of tweaks with characters and plot that bothered me. His evil characters are good, but there's not enough of them in there. It was too neutral. Not enough good vs. evil for me. Spencer Mallon is too much of an ambiguous character, too. He is central to the plot, and yet he never truly appears. My favourite character was probably the one who goes nuts and spends the rest of his life quoting from novels instead of speaking. 

I'm bored of writing now. This wasn't really a good review but it's late and I'm tired and I'm not going to change it. One last thought:

I think that what scares me so much about these multi-dimensional ideas is that I find them strangely credible. Of all the weird speculative phenomena, the idea that there are multiple universes, and that in at least one of them, there are things more horrible than we can imagine, is something that could be true. If you think it’s unlikely, just take a look over at CERN, I’m sort of curious and sort of horrified by what the Large Hadron Collider is going to find. Or what it could cause to find us…

Next: Vignettes of Ystov by William Goldsmith

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