You’ve survived another week! Have a Freaky Friday and relax knowing that whatever book I’m talking about was probably published a couple of decades ago and can’t hurt you anymore.
I’ve always wondered what would happen if Harry Potter had been written for adults. Just because it’s written for children, that doesn’t mean it’s somehow inferior in quality to books written for adults, but I’ve always had a (probably perverse) urge to know what would happen if a more adult sensibility ran through JK Rowling’s story of Chosen Ones, benevolent boarding schools, and relatively sexless relationships. There’s no real reason for adult fiction sensibilities to meet JK Rowling’s beloved epic, but then again there’s no real reason for Superman and Batman to fight either. Sometimes you just want your Star Wars action figures to marry your Barbies. Fortunately for me, Peter Straub already wrote a literary fiction version of Harry Potter when he wrote Shadowland, 17 years before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was even published, way back when JK Rowling was only 15 years old.
After his book Ghost Story (1979) became a massive bestseller praised by every critic who mattered, Peter Straub could do pretty much anything he wanted. And what he wanted was to write about magic, specifically he wanted to write about young schoolboys learning about life, disappointment, and aging at the hands of an older magician. The same way that fighting monsters stands in for puberty in Stephen King’s It, the ecstatic joys and pitch black grief of magic are signposts along the road to adulthood in Straub’s Shadowland.
Straub’s Hogwarts is the Carson School in Arizona, a boarding school for boys that doesn’t quite come up to the standards of the woodsy, WASPy boarding schools of the northeast and knows it. There, Tom Flanagan has been sent by his mother not because he’s the Chosen One but because his father is dying of cancer and she wants to hide it from him as much as possible. Flanagan is “underrated” much in the same way that Harry Potter is, and lonely, and at Carson he meets Del Nightingale, a fabulously wealthy boy who’s been stashed at the school by his godparents. The beginning of the novel passes in a familiar kind of blur as we meet the other students, who come complete with a resident upperclassman bully, Skeleton Ridpath, who’s sort of like Draco Malfoy if Malfoy was actually a potential school shooter.
Like a great magic trick, this amiable beginning is all misdirection, indicating that Ridpath is going to be the book’s baddie, when in fact he turns out to be just another victim. Del and Tom bond over Del’s obsession with stage magic and Del won’t shut up about how he spends every summer learning magic from his uncle, Coleman Collins, at his mansion in Vermont. After much arm-twisting, Tom agrees to come spend a summer at the mansion, named Shadowland, and there the triangle becomes complete when they meet Rose, the object of Del’s affections. Also, surprise! Turns out that Uncle Cole teaches real magic (based on the magic system in Dungeons & Dragons, weirdly enough). Double surprise! Turns out that Tom is the Chosen One, an innately powerful magician who’s destined to become King of the Cats, the most powerful magician in the world.
So we have a Hogwarts both in the Carson School and Shadowland, a Ron-Harry-Hermione triangle with Del-Tom-Rose, and a Dumbledore figure with Uncle Cole. But this is where Straub’s adult fiction sensibility comes in and mucks up everything. Rowling accepted some of her story-telling devices at face value like the basic benevolence of Hogwarts (House-Elves aside), the inherent goodness of Dumbledore, and the strength and stability of the Harry-Ron-Hermione triangle. That’s not to say that these devices are never threatened, but in general we know they’re going to hold. We all know that Dumbledore is not going to get fed up with Harry and crucify him, or that Ron, humiliated by Hermione’s general academic excellence, isn’t going to start gaslighting her. That’s what fan fiction is for.
In a sense, Rowling loves her toys too much to break them. Straub has his toys too—a magical school, a secret order of magicians, ghosts trapped in mirrors, beer-drinking fairies baiting badgers, spellbooks, secret passages—but he regards all this apparatus with a more jaundiced eye. He interrogates the whole concept of the Chosen One (Why Chosen? Chosen for what?), the motivations of the teachers (what compels you to spend your life teaching magic to precocious children?), and the warping of relationships when power comes into play.
Straub doesn’t write about goodies and baddies (or baddies who turn out to be goodies). Uncle Cole is Dumbledore and Voldemort rolled into one. Why does he proclaim Tom the Chosen One? To humiliate his nephew, whose childish enthusiasms disgust him because they remind him of how he used to be. Why does he agree to teach the boys magic? Because he’s caught in a cycle of abuse, much like the teachers at the Carson School. He takes these boys whose freedom and youth he envies, gives them rules so harsh and arbitrary they’ll inevitably break them, then uses this manufactured disobedience as permission to punish them.
It’s perverse, but it’s no more perverse than how we do education. Dress codes, and grades, and Honors Classes are designed to convey knowledge but they’re also designed to teach obedience to systems. They’re designed to change us. So too is a school for magic. Change is tragic, but to reject it is to reject life. And life has its way with Del and Tom. They become mortal enemies, the man they trusted becomes the author of their destruction, the girl they loved turns out to be an illusion, and the magic they hungered for winds up being the thing they most regret.
Before reading Koko, I had never been a big fan of Straub and there’s something old fashioned and academic about his prose. Rowling’s books leap along, bounding from incident to incident, leavened with humor and character business. Straub’s Shadowland twists itself into its own guts, burrowing deeper into its own dark workings, full of carnage, blood, pain, fairy tales, and occasional flashes of joy and wonder. Stories are nested inside flashbacks which are contained within larger stories. And both authors, surprisingly, wind up in similar places.
Straub’s characters wind up getting exactly what their hearts desired. The villain is defeated, the captured princess goes free, and one boy winds up as a small glass sparrow who never has to grow old, while the other ages into adulthood, playing threadbare lounges and second-rate nightclubs, working his magic to earn a living, no better or worse than the rest of us. He’s not unhappy, exactly, but he knows with every pass of the cards, with every cup and ball trick, with each vanishing dove that nothing will ever compare to the wonder and terror, the intensity and pain, of how it felt to be a child.
Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his most recent novel is Horrorstör, about a haunted Ikea, while My Best Friend’s Exorcism (which is like Beaches meets The Exorcist) will be out from Quirk Books on May 17th.