Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter—a literate horror story

Since the 1970s Peter Straub has been known as the “literate” horror writer, kind of a modern-day Henry James.  Stephen King, Straub’s sometimes collaborator (The Talisman and Black House), has compared himself to a burger and fries.  Using the same type of allusion, we might refer to Straub as filet mignon and a baked potato with chives.  Maybe the combination of the authors’ styles is what makes their two novels so successful and deliciously frightening. King goes for your jugular; Straub goes for your brain.

Straub’s 16th solo novel reinforces his reputation, but it is also, at times, more visceral in description than most of the author’s recent works.  However, between the few scenes of a college student being torn limb from limb by a disgusting-smelling demon, rather than scream-in-the-night scary, A Dark Matter is pit-of-the-stomach disturbing, a novel that readers will carry with them like a gladstone loaded with bricks.

It also takes Straub far less time to make his point than his buddy Steve.  While the 397 pages of A Dark Matter is far from spare, compared with the 1074 pages of Under the Dome, Peter’s book feels more like a tightly-packed short story.

Those familiar with Straub’s work will recognize the masterful narrative style he used as far back as his definitive novel, Ghost Story (1979).  A small group of friends have shared a terrifying secret for years.  It’s time to reveal what happened.  Something happened in a field near the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1966 that left one boy dead and mutilated and another missing. The secret has had staggering effects on each of them.

Howard (Hootie) Bly has been institutionalized in a mental hospital for forty years and has only spoken using quotations from Hawthorne and a dictionary of obscure words; Donald (Dilly) Olson has spent his life as a conman in and out of prison; Jason (Boats) Boatman has gone from a small-time shoplifter to become a compulsive thief; and the beautiful Lee (the Eel) Truax has lived most of her adult life totally blind.  Only the narrator of A Dark Matter, the Eel’s high school boyfriend and now husband, Lee Harwell (a bit confusing at times that the husband and wife are both named Lee), seems unaffected by what happened four decades earlier, and that for very good reason.

When self-styled guru Spencer Mallon came to town, Hootie, Dilly, Boats and the Eel came under his Svengali-like spell, and, along with some college students, followed Mallon to that field to perform a ritual that would “change the world.”  Indeed, their worlds were changed. However, for reasons never adequately explained, Lee Harwell refused to accompany his friends, and he alone missed out on delving into the spiritual unknown.

In the present day, circumstances have led to a culmination of curiosity for author Lee, and it is time for him to learn as much about what took place that day as he can.

Now we get to witness the apocryphal events from each member of the group’s perspectives. The common thread of their versions is that a demon was unleashed that night, but, just as several witnesses to a crime will tell different stories, what each of these friends lived through has subtle and sometimes grossly disparate aspects.  Only by hearing from all of them will we have enough clues to solve what may have really happened.  And then we can’t be sure what details of their stories were only imagined.

A Dark Matter has a couple of weaknesses for me.  The first problem I had was suspension of disbelief.  I was a teenager once, and I taught high school students for over 30 years.  I can’t imagine a teenager willingly missing out on an adventure that all of his best friends, including his girlfriend shared.  Nor can I imagine a teenager who is mature enough to feel no jealousy when his girlfriend is passionate about an older man.

The second problem is that, when the same story is told several times from different viewpoints, no matter the differences, the narration begins to seem redundant.

That being said, Peter Straub is one of his generation’s best story tellers, and there is no way I would have missed A Dark Matter.  When the novel is at its best it is excellent; when it is repetitious or unbelievable, it is still pretty darned good.

Mark Graham reviewed books for the Rocky Mountain News from 1977 until the paper closed its doors in February 2009. His “Unreal Worlds” column on science fiction and fantasy appeared regularly in the paper since 1988. He has reviewed well over 1,000 genre books, including all but the first three by Peter Straub. If you see a Rocky Mountain News blurb on a book, it is likely from a review or interview he wrote.  Graham also created and taught Unreal Literature, a high school science fiction class, for nearly 30 years in the Jefferson County Colorado public schools.


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