A Daft Matter

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter is clearly a work which is important to him; it’s so important, he’s published it twice. The commonly-available edition – which is what I am reviewing here, is a trimmed-down version of a significantly longer early draft, The Skylark, which was published in a limited edition at around the same time as A Dark Matter hit the market. On top of that, he’s also released A Special Place – The Heart of A Dark Matter, a portion of the material excised from The Skylark reshaped into a standalone novella. Clearly, Straub and his publishers think that A Dark Matter/The Skylark is a really big deal, and the judges of the Bram Stoker Award also thought so, giving A Dark Matter their 2010 award for best novel.

I’m not convinced. It’s not that I’m against literary fiction infused with sinister supernatural elements of the type that A Dark Matter aspires to being – hell, if I was, my reviews of The Ceremonies, My Work Is Not Yet Done, and all those Ramsey Campbell books would have been very, very different. And in fact, I think Straub has succeeded at producing literary horror in the past, and I’ve championed Ghost Story and Shadowland on here before. It’s just that A Dark Matter isn’t that good – not as a horror novel, not as an allegorical novel using occult symbolism to illuminate the characters’ inner lives, not as a literary slice-of-life novel, not as a modern-day fantasy, not as any of the different things it tries to be over the course of over four hundred pages. It has a hell of a beginning, and that kept me going for most of it, but it’s hard to deny that it just completely goes to pieces in the last third or so. The last hundred pages of the book more or less destroy anything Straub was trying to accomplish with it.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself. A Dark Matter kicks off with a simple enough premise: back in Madison, Wisconsin in 1966, various high school friends of protagonist Lee Harwell (including his then-girlfriend Lee “the Eel” Traux) hit on the fantastic idea of going out and hanging out the Aluminium Room, a local bar, and pretending to be college students. As a consequence of this they end up being drawn into the circle of disciples around the mysterious Spencer Mallon, a campus guru of the sort that was not uncommon during the era – the sort of guy who’d drift from town to town proferring mystical insights and scamming people for money, sleeping space, food and sex. Mallon believes he’s close to making a spiritual breakthrough, so he encouraged the group to come out with him to a nearby meadow one night in order to conduct a ritual which he claims will change the world. By the end of the evening, one of the participants – sociopathic college student Keith Hayward – ends up torn to shreds, and another one is driven insane; the rest find that the consequences of the ritual reverberate throughout their lives.

Lee Harwell himself refused to get involved with Mallon from the get-go and did not participate in the ritual; as a result, he’s felt that the others have been keeping secrets about it ever since, even the Eel, who he later married. We pick up the action in the mid-2000s; Harwell has become an author, and is searching for a subject for his next book, it having been suggested that he should try his hand at nonfiction. In casting about for a topic to write about, Harwell has come into possession of a manuscript by George Cooper, the lead detective on the infamous Ladykiller serial murder case which dominated the local news some years before the Mallon incident. The manuscript piques Harwell’s interest in the incident in the field, because it suggests that poor dead Keith Hayward might have had some connection with the killings; other reminders of the time period and the people involve prompt Harwell to finally address the elephant in the room, and he sets off to track down his old school friends and get some answers from them once and for all.

The novel’s structure, therefore, essentially consists of a series of retellings of the same set of events from different characters’ perspectives, with connecting passages between relating Harwell’s growing suspicions and his efforts to trace the various people from his past. Each time the story is told, we get closer and closer to the heart of the matter, with mysteries and confusions from the previous tellings resolved and new questions arising from the new information obtained. Whilst in principle this is an entirely workable structure for the novel, it does eventually mean that Straub writes himself into a corner. Straub seems to have decided that to maintain the reader’s interest, each new rendition of the story has to outdo the previous one in some respect, which is a reasonable enough choice – certainly, this type of narrative structure is horribly vulnerable to diminishing returns.

However, the way he has done this is to amp up the wild, fantastical imagery described by the characters each time, and even the first version of the tale isn’t exactly particularly subtle, so the end result is runaway inflation of the fantastical. When the supernatural manifestations are limited to mysterious gentlemen in grey suits who act in a manner reminiscent of the MIBs of UFO folklore, who may in fact be supernatural dogs in human form, that’s creepy and scary and the novel is recognisably in horror territory. When it turns out that in the middle of the magic circle you had the planetary spirits as described by Cornelius Agrippa capering about and doing magic stuff then we’re out of traditional horror turf and heading more for occult modern-day fantasy; again, fair enough.

But when you end up with a character decades after the event having a hallucinatory encounter with Mallon that turns into a hallucinatory vision of themselves in a warehouse with the terrain they’ve recently been exploring painted on the floor, or when you have the Eel talking about how her soul turned into a time-travelling skylark and she had an encounter with a demonic English professor with a pronounced Noo Yoik accent and took a London bus to visit the Godhead and peed herself in the presence of the Divine, the novel travels beyond even fantasy and into the realm of utter bullshit. It’s not the fantastic or unrealistic nature of these revelations which grates on me – though they do end up being a million miles way from the occult horror the basic premise of the story seems to promise – so much as the spectacle of these characters recounting this nonsense with perfect seriousness, and these stories being accepted with complete seriousness, whilst at the same time as a reader I was thinking to myself “How does an otherwise intelligent author like Straub end up writing this dreck?”

Part of the problem with these stories, which dominate the last third of the book, is Straub completely losing any control he used to have over the tone and atmosphere of the book. In early incidents, where we are in firm horror territory, he does a better job, but where he takes a sidestep into sub-Twin Peaks surrealism he not only loses any semblance of restraint, but he also fails to sell the reader on what is going on. The material he presents is not spooky enough on an intellectual or visceral level to horrify, it’s too silly and relies on too much dream logic to be gripping modern-day fantasy, and it’s too shallow and obvious in the meaning it wants to convey to be a decent surrealist allegory.

And as for that meaning, dear God, where to begin. Although over the course of the novel it becomes apparent that Spencer Mallon was a rube who didn’t really understand the forces he was tampering with, Straub ends up through these vignettes espousing a metaphysical and theological stance which is barely up to the sort of standard a stoned student could cook up, never mind an actual 1960s itinerant charlatan. He wheels out the old chestnut about good and evil being two sides of the same coin and you can’t have one without another as though that were remotely revelatory, useful, or interesting, rather than being a meaningless cliche vomited forth by substandard authors from the 1960s onwards. The answer to the big overwhelming mystery of existence turns out to be that we can’t actually face the answer to the big overwhelming mystery of existence, which I rather think is a cogent argument for giving up on mystical quests altogether and just learning how to live well on a pragmatic and practical level but which is put across as some sort of amazing spiritual wisdom.

At one point, Straub (through, admittedly, a devil) makes the assertion that it is not love that makes the world go round, but story or narrative; if that is the case, producing a story as empty and miserable and as lifeless as the one Straub presents here is not merely a waste of readers’ time and money, but outright sabotage of the very force that keeps the universe ticking over, so I guess Straub is the real villain here as opposed to Keith Hayward, who Straub wants us to forgive because there’s goodness inside everyone, even guys who want to cut women up and dance around in their skin.

I’m sorry, but this is just pathetic. If you’re going to write a novel which critically examines 60s mysticism, as A Dark Matter at first purports to be, and if you’re going to include your own ideas about metaphysics in there, then they need to be far more compelling than the guff Straub tries to fob off on his readers. Charles Manson’s whole Helter Skelter deal with the White Album and the race war and the hidden underground cities might have been toxic, dangerous nonsense, but at least it was interesting and at least it led to something happening, whilst Straub’s mythology doesn’t even achieve that.

The overall course of the novel, in fact, seems to start out by trying to suggest to the reader that the likes of Spencer Mallon are dangerous cranks who at best are charlatans and at worst represent a genuine peril, and then ends up endorsing a worldview remarkably like Spencer’s. This is most visible in the modern-day segments covering Lee Harwell’s investigation of what went down back then, in which Lee starts off sceptical and eventually all the reunited friends’ personalities more or less dissolve and they turn into piles of goo before the Eel, who turns out to be the magical wonderful chosen one whose soul turned into a skylark, and who it is hinted has benignly watched over the others and kept in touch with them with her magic soul powers. (By the way, she’s blind, so chalk up one more for the Blind People With Super-Sensory Powers crowd.)

The extent of Harwell’s and the other characters’ gushing over how wonderful the Eel is, and how nice it is that Hootie is out of the nuthouse, and how great it is that old Boatman has stopped stealing stuff, and how Dilly’s given up his rough ways and settled down, and isn’t it so nice and wonderful that everyone’s happy and together again… all that stuff not only intensely irritated me towards the end of the novel, but made me feel actively uncomfortable, as though I had walked in on Straub and his wife and his old school friends in the middle of a friendly mutual masturbation session. The extent to which the book is autobiographical is obscure, as is usually the case for horror writers writing about being writers; what I do know is that Straub, like Harwell, grew up in Wisconsin, and the inspiration for the Eel is thanked in the acknowledgements section.

Either way, it seems that A Dark Matter is a very personal novel for Straub, and one is tempted to suggest it might have been best had he kept it personal. The real tragedy is that, early on at least, the book is a lot of fun – the dog-people are spooky, Straub shows a talent for hinting and inference that’s worthy of Gene Wolfe, and the stodgy prose even starts to work once it gets into hardboiled detective territory. All this is abandoned in the last third or so with the book, as well as any attempt to make the connecting story of Harwell’s investigation hang together at all. Subtlety is dispensed with and control of tone and atmosphere and pacing is relinquished, in favour of Straub just dumping a lot of weird events and kooky philosophy on the reader in great, heaving spoonfuls.

You can tell that things are about to completely go to shit when the framing story disintegrates. What had been an orderly and careful narration of Harwell’s investigation technique descends into Harwell just bouncing from place to place with clues falling into his lap – Jason Boatman, for example, randomly shows up from out of nowhere. To be fair, of course, it’s hard to see how the investigation could have completed without the various witnesses simply showing up and spilling their guts to Harwell, because he shows an incredible inability to add two and two together – it takes him abominably long, for example, to realise that the roguish Dilly is taking him to meet Meredith Bright, Mallon’s former lover, despite everything he’s recently learned about Bright’s subsequent life and interactions with Dilly making it blindingly obvious.

Now, to be fair, some of the problems with the connecting story may result from it being something Straub had to knock together as a result of having to strip material out of The Skylark to produce something publishable. That doesn’t, of course, excuse the weak quality of the core chunks of material – the narratives of that one day in 1966 – and nor does it excuse the fact that the connecting story is just incompetently written. Most unforgivably, there’s several recurring strands that crop up in the framing story that just don’t go anywhere, despite the fact that they are regularly pointed out as being important. For example, Harwell discovers that Mallon is still alive and well and living in New York. He makes no effort to contact the guy. That, you could possibly explain by pointing out that Mallon himself is meant to have not really understood what he accomplished. Fair enough. But what can’t be so easily explained is the regular reference to the fact that Lee and the Eel share the same first name, or that they’re somehow spiritual Twins who even looked alike back when they were in high school and the Eel was rocking the tomboy look. Characters go out of their way to point that out and declare that it is significant… but then, by the end of the novel, the strand is never brought to anything like a satisfying conclusion. Perhaps this is a point which is properly explored in The Skylark, but Straub’s abject failure to remove it is symptomatic of a general failure to edit the novel. At the same time, the material here is so weak that I have absolutely no desire to wade through even more of it, so the odds of me ever cracking open The Skylark are slim-to-remote at best.

Overall, Straub’s big problem here is that he’s tried to craft something literary and allegorical and spiritual out of a premise that’s far, far more suited for an occult horror potboiler. The strongest parts of the book, in fact, are those which deal with the hideous Keith Hayward and his good old uncle the Ladykiller, not least because those tend to stray back to genre fiction territory, which Straub is able to operate in competently. As a whole, though, the novel presents a premise which seems to suggest one direction, and then takes the opposite approach. Not only that, but it explores the direction it does opt for absolutely incompetently. I might have been tempted to forgive the bait-and-switch if the resultant material were any good, but the ending of the novel is so catastrophically underwhelming – to the point where the characters actually describe it as anticlimactic – that I have to throw the book at Straub. But he’s not present, so I’ll just throw it in the Axis of Awful instead.

To give you an idea of how pissed off I am by this enormous waste of time, as though the above review weren’t enough, when I was halfway through the book I was loving it to such an extent that I was giving serious consideration to putting it in the Axis of Awesome. The fact that it’s gone to the other place is wholly down to the fact that I know full well Straub is capable of doing much, much better than this, and so his failure to do so here is not the result of a lack of talent. Incompetence on the part of an amateur is par for the course; incompetence by a seasoned professional is unforgivable.

6 thoughts on “A Daft Matter

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