A Dark Matter
by Peter Straub
I had purchased this book back in March, shortly after seeing its inclusion as a nominee for a Stoker Award, it had been on my wish list ever since it was published, and I figured it had been long enough. After it won the Stoker Award in June, I sat down to read it, and upon doing so was warned by several horror aficionados and Straub fans that this was a disappointment of a book. Now, I've only read two of his novels prior to this one (Ghost Story and Shadowland), which I found to be simply stellar, so I figured some of the disappointment from readers likely stemmed from this book's divergence from previous works in terms of tone and temper. I think I was right on that count, but did I still manage to avoid being disappointed myself?
Author, Lee Harwell is set to work on his next project, but while his publishers are hankering for him to write a nonfiction book, he takes that idea and decides to turn a piece of his own life into a novel. Well, it's really a piece of his wife's life from their college days, in which she and a small group of friends around a college town fell under the spell of a vagabond guru named Spencer Mallon. While Lee thought the guy to be a charleton, his then girlfriend (also named Lee but nicknamed "The Eel") fell for Mallon hook, line, and sinker. It all built to a occult-like ceremony in a meadow one night that left one dead, another missing, and everyone else irrevocably changed. And Lee is bound and determined so many years later to finally discover what happened in that meadow and how it has affected those close to him.
For a book so subdued in tone, there's a lot of mystery to the event in the meadow and whether there was something supernatural that actually happened or not. What the book lacked was suspense or any sense of urgency for Lee to discover the secrets of Spencer Mallon and his short-lived band of devotees. I mean, the guy spent decades before he finally decided to get off his ass and figure out what his wife and the others had been hiding from him. If the love of life wound up blinded, supposedly by whatever happened in that meadow, I'd like to think I'd be a little quicker looking for answers.
The other problem I found was the spiritual leader of Spencer Mallon didn't come off as all that impressive, intimidating, or intellectual. Even through the recollections of his devotees, he seemed as much the shallow cad as Lee Harwell established at the start of the novel. The whole notion he attracted a flock of youthful followers seemed implausible, though in real life it amazes me the types who are able to charm the public, so maybe I should give that part of the book a pass. As for Lee's wife, also named Lee but nicknamed Eel, was another character that could have been a lot more captivating, but she spent the majority of the novel offstage, both in the present and even the past. A bit of a shame, but her absence was a crux to the story's plot. When she does show up, she's an alluring character, which is why I wish she had more time on the page.
A character I did thoroughly enjoy was Hootie Bly, a mutual friend of the Hartwells who was also a Mallon follower, who went insane after the ritual in the meadow. He winds up unable to speak except through quotations from Hawthorne novels, then more literary works, thanks to the benefit of a photographic memory. The interactions with him, while brief, were a treat.
All in all I did like the book, but it didn't enrapture me the way Ghost Story and Shadowland did. My preconceptions brought me down, as did the silly notion the story might be more like Clive Barker's The Great and Secret Show than Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger--both good books, but I've got a clear preference for one over the other. For a novel that essentially entails a character sitting around and reminiscing about events in which he played no part, it's able to provide a satisfying mystery--just not a spellbinding one.