Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Dark Matter: story is all that matters

"You can't have a story without including a bad deed or a bad intention," Peter Straub writes in his award-winning novel "A Dark Matter."

Let me tell you about a problem I'm having. it has to do with books, especially horror novels, with a writer as the protagonist. My problem is that I am getting tired of stories about writers by writers who seem to have never known any other career.

The thing is, is that I still love two of the three novelists responsible for making novels about writers OK. (Sorry, Dean Koontz. You have your fans, but other than a few exceptions, I've never been able to engage with your work. As for Stephen King, I bow to the master.)

Peter Straub has done his share of horror novels about writers and "A Dark Matter" is one of them. At first, I wanted to be upset. You know, "Oh, great. Another horror novel about a writer and him (almost always a male) figuring things out."

Thankfully, I didn't let that stop me from finishing this book.

While it isn't revealed until the final 30 or so pages, "A Dark Matter" is all about how people tell the stories of their lives. Even when we experience the same moments, our perceptions of those moments are never the same.

Straub uses this notion to tell the story of a group of high school friends who in 1966 encounter a guru. With the faux-prophet, the teens perform a mystic ceremony with three college students, including one who is absolutely bonkers.

None of these people are our writer. The writer, Lee Harwell, chose not to participate and 40 years later is piecing together just what happened to his friends and his eventual wife. Harwell reconnects with those of the group who are available and writes down their stories as they are told. One friend became the guru's apprentice. One spent the next 40 years in a psychiatric hospital. One was a thief and the last of the teens became Harwell's wife.

The stories are all the same. We met the prophet, we loved him, we followed him to the meadow. Shit hit the fan and none of us were ever the same.

By telling each person's story separately, Straub accomplishes a "Rashomon" effect. Every sees the same thing, but just different enough to make it interesting. Almost every one of them thinks the story is about them.

But really, this story is about Lee Truax, the Eel, Harwell's high school girlfriend and eventual wife. It is through her that Harwell is able to bring the friends back together and it is her who provides the links connecting the individual experiences. By her old age, she is blind. She saw more then and in many ways still sees, more than her writer husband.

Through character traits, Straub is able to play with language and obscure words. In a lesser author, this would feel more like showing off. In Straub's hands, it's a fun quirk that provides another level on his discourse in how to tell a story.

The action of the book is a classic rollercoaster: there is a constant sense of impending doom. Things crank up until it feels like things will explode but pull back at the last second. The heart rate slows but the nerve endings are ever vigilant.

"A Dark Matter" is my official exception to the new rule that I am tired of books about writers.

Threat level: RED. Highly recommended for seasoned readers and burgeoning writers. (For an explanation of Warning Signs ratings, visit the Warning System page.)

"A Dark Matter," by Peter Straub. Now available in mass market paperback.

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