Author: Peter Straub
Genre: Horror, Literary Fiction
Publication Date: February 2010
Hardcover: 416 Pages
The charismatic and cunning Spenser Mallon is a campus guru in the 1960s, attracting the devotion and demanding sexual favors of his young acolytes. After he invites his most fervent followers to attend a secret ritual in a local meadow, the only thing that remains is a gruesomely dismembered body—and the shattered souls of all who were present.
Years later, one man attempts to understand what happened to his wife and to his friends by writing a book about this horrible night, and it’s through this process that they begin to examine the unspeakable events that have bound them in ways they cannot fathom, but that have haunted every one of them through their lives. As each of the old friends tries to come to grips with the darkness of the past, they find themselves face-to-face with the evil triggered so many years earlier. Unfolding through the individual stories of the fated group’s members, A Dark Matter is an electric, chilling, and unpredictable novel that will satisfy Peter Straub’s many ardent fans, and win him legions more.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book: I am a huge of Peter Straub’s, and have been since I first read Ghost Story as a teen. So, when we were offered the opportunity to read and review A Dark Matter – and to interview Peter Straub himself! – I was ecstatic.
On an evening pregnant with violence and possibility in 1966, a group of eight young men and women trek out to a meadow and perform an ancient ritual, following the charismatic spiritual guru, Spencer Mallon. At the end of the evening, only six emerge from the meadow – one boy disappears completely, another’s mangled, shredded corpse lies dead in the grass. Even those lucky enough to emerge with their lives, however, are forever changed by the event. Lee Harwell, best friends with four of those who went to the meadow, has always felt on the periphery of this extraordinary event. Unwilling to buy into Spencer Mallon’s teachings and affected persona, Lee refused to join his friends that evening, and only decades later decides to seriously piece together the mystery of what happened that evening. Now a famous author, Lee finally pursues answers: from “Dilly” Olson, the handsome young man that followed Mallon for years before landing in prison; from “Boats” Boatman, a kleptomaniac that has lost his defining edge; from Meredith Bright, the impossibly beautiful and coldly inhuman senator’s wife; from “Hootie” Bly, the innocent boy that went mad after that evening, and who can only speak in quotations from books; and from “the Eel,” Lee Truax, Lee Harwell’s beautiful wife that gradually lost her sight after that evening in the meadow.
Though billed as something of a supernatural horror novel, A Dark Matter is much more of a psychological book. It’s a subdued novel in the fashion of Rashomon or Lost, using different character perspectives to gradually build a complete picture of events. But it’s also more than just a book about solving the mystery of “What Happened That Fated Eve!” It’s also an exploration of relationships and characters as they have changed over the years. All this, of course, filtered through the outside perspective of a narrator that has no knowledge of the event, but has seen how his friends have been affected by that remarkable, supernatural experience. As Lee Harwell explores the memories of the past, he collects and records each character’s story – in terms of writing, this translates to a bizarre, yet satisfying, format for the novel. A Dark Matter is essentially a collection of shorter stories, connected by Lee’s narrative and his own piecemeal understanding of events. What should be an awkward, disjointed read is instead a rewarding, quirky one that simply works. I loved the metafiction aspect of the book (i.e. readers know Lee is writing these stories for a book, just as Lee is conscious to the fact he is writing a story). It simply worked.
As for the characters themselves, those entities behind the recollections, they are a strange, motley crew. Lee Harwell, our hero, isn’t really a hero. Of all his high school friends, Lee was the only one smart enough (or is it stubborn?) not to buy into Spencer Mallon’s B.S. peddling. And yet, the whole driving force behind the book is Lee’s inherent outside-ness, his position on the periphery of a life-changing event that cast a shadow on the lives of all his closest and most loved friends. It’s an intriguing juxtaposition – though Lee reiterates numerous times that he’s glad he didn’t meed Spencer Mallon in 1966 and that he’s happy he did not go to the meadow, the reader can’t help but feel he regrets this, deeply. As a narrator and protagonist, Lee Harwell is a very human, frail dude. Susceptible to human failings and emotions, Lee’s one well rounded voice. The other characters, however, lack the same rounded development. For one thing, it’s a little pet peeve of mine when everyone in a book is ridiculously good looking – Mallon is likened to a young Harrison Ford (circa Raiders of the Lost Ark), Dilly incredibly handsome, Boats only slightly less handsome, the Eel completely, heartstoppingly, breathtakingly beautiful. In fact, it’s the Eel that I wish had more of a character, as she’s always on the periphery and on a pedestal that her husband has (sub?)consciously elevated her to at every turn of the page.
The best characters were, without a doubt, Meredith Bright and Hootie Bly. The scene when Lee finally meets the beautiful Meredith is chilling and made of awesome – Meredith’s beautify is the grade of perfection you see with plastic surgery on cougar trophy wives, vampiric politician spouses, the Nicole Kidmans of the world. Her ruthlessness and narcissism is simply dumbfounding. Hootie, however, is the character that steals your heart. After going mad, losing himself to a prison of words after the Meadow, Hootie is committed to a mental institution – where he has remained for decades, until Lee and Dilly come calling. Hootie, a boy with a photographic memory, speaks only in quotations – his favorite being Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. He is the unmarred innocent, the idiot savant that comes to life in a way that is unique and memorable, quite literally stealing the show from the other members of the group.
While I loved some of the characters and the actual structure of the book, my main problem with A Dark Matter was in how loose and amorphous the story was. Firstly, all of the kids from the meadow never blame Mallon for what has happened to them – which I admit is kinda cool (besides the fact that Mallon gives me the willies). It seems a little weird that these generally smart, impossibly beautiful people were so easily taken in by a dime-a-dozen, pseudo-spiritualist moocher – and that years later, after going blind/mad/to prison/etc, they still all love Spencer Mallon.
Also, A Dark Matter is built up around this mystery of what each character saw in the Meadow, and ultimately the vision is different for each character and there are no concrete answers – even the Eel’s final revelation is a little underwhelming. But, as I finished the book and thought about it for a while, I came to my own Lee Harwell type of discovery. A Dark Matter is not so much about the what as it is the how. It’s a defining, and as Lee says, a liberating experience. The supernatural elements of the book (which aren’t very prominent) are nothing compared to the psychological development of the story – it’s about the hold this event has put on all the characters’ lives, inflicted on them by themselves.
Ultimately, I enjoyed A Dark Matter, as a work of literary fiction. Absolutely recommended to fans not only of Mr. Straub’s horror, but of a well-written, thought-provoking, and ultimately emotionally liberating story.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
A Few Years Back, Late Spring
The great revelations of my adult life began with the shouts of a lost soul in my neighborhood breakfast joint. I was standing in line at the Corner Bakery on State and Cedar, half a block down the street from my pretty brick townhouse, waiting to order a Swiss Oatmeal (muesli) or a Berry Parfait (granola), anyhow something modest. The loudest noises in the place were the tapping of laptop keys and the rustle of someone turning newspaper pages. Abruptly, with a manic indignation that seemed to come from nowhere, the man at the head of the line started uttering the word obstreperous. He started out at a level just above ordinary conversation. By the time he found his rhythm, he was about twice that volume and getting louder as he rolled along. If you had to settle on one word to yell over and over in public, wouldn’t you pick something less cumbersome? Yet he kept at it, spinning those four lumpy syllables every possible way, as if trying them on for size. His motive, for nothing actually comes from nowhere, soon became obvious.
Obstreperous? ObSTREPerous? OBSTREPEROUS? Ob-strep?-ER-ous? OBstreperous?
Lady, you think I’m obstreperous now? This is what he was saying. Give me another thirty seconds, you’ll learn all about obstreperous.
With each repetition, his question grew more heated. The momentarily dumbfounded young woman at the order counter had offended him, he wished her to know how greatly. The guy also thought he was making himself look smart, even witty, but to everyone else in the shop he had uncorked raving lunacy.
His variations were becoming more imaginative.
Obstreeperous? Obstraperous? ObstrapOROUS?
To inspect this dude, I tilted sideways and looked down the good-sized line. I almost wished I hadn’t.
Right away, it was obvious that the guy was not simply playing around. The next man in line was giving him six feet of empty ?oor space. Under the best of circumstances, people were going to keep their distance from this character. Eight or nine inches of white-gray hair surged out in stiff waves around his head. He was wearing a torn, slept-in checked suit that might have been ripped off a corn?eld scarecrow. Through a latticework of scabs, smears, and bruises, his swollen feet shone a glaring, bloodless white. Like me, he had papers under his elbow, but the wad of newsprint he was clamping to his side appeared to have lasted him at least four or ?ve days. The puffed-up bare feet, scuffed and abraded like shoes, were the worst part.
“Sir?” said the woman at the order counter. “Sir, you need to leave my store. Step away from the counter, sir, please. You need to step away.”
You can read all of chapter 1 and chapter 2 online at the book’s official facebook page, HERE.
Additional Thoughts: Check out the pretty effective book trailer below:
Also, make sure to check out our very own Q&A with the master of horror himself, Peter Straub HERE.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
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