A single terrifying experience in the 1960s. A bond of friendship forged across decades. A mysterious man with hidden insight into the workings of the world. These are the basic elements from which Peter Straub creates his latest novel, A Dark Matter, released this month by Doubleday. A master of supernatural and psychological horror, Straub’s most notable prior novels include Ghost Story (1979), Shadowland (1980), Koko (1988), which won the World Fantasy Award, Mr. X (1999) and In the Night Room (2004). In these tales, Straub has delighted in testing boundaries of horror as a genre, supplementing thrills with metafictional devices and shifting the spotlight from monsters to unreliable narrators.
But the modern horror tale’s traditional fixation on “a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces” (as H. P. Lovecraft put it in his 1927 essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”) remains at the heart of Straub’s work, and A Dark Matter is no exception. Narrator Lee Harwell, a novelist suffering from writer’s block, sets out to find out what really happened in Madison, Wisconsin, many decades ago, during a ritual that involved his wife Lee Traux, known as “the Eel,” and three of her teenage friends, also bearing evocative nicknames: Dilly (Dill Olson), Hootie (Howard Bly), and Boats (Jason Boatman). The crux of the ritual concerns the teachings of the German magician and occult writer Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) in his Three Books of Occult Philosophy, which attempted to reconcile the magic of the natural world with the celestial or divine. The event itself (readers of Straub’s work will be unsurprised to learn) involves a death, and permanently warps the lives of all the participants: the Eel goes blind, Hootie is institutionalized, Dilly disappears, and Boats becomes a professional thief. Complicating their lives further, the four are haunted by strange otherworldly emissaries that often take the form of dogs.
Harwell, who was not present at the traumatic moment, sees his investigation into the matter as not just a cure for his writer’s block, but also as a way to better understand his wife. It’s largely through his efforts that the four reunite and confront the true implications of their ordeal. Thus, A Dark Matter chronicles Harwell’s inquiry into Lovecraft’s “outer, unknown forces” — and an attempt to understand them through certain types of magic — while showing how the Eel, Hootie, Boats, and Dilly live in the shadow of a shared trauma so complete that the four obsessively return to the days and months leading up to it.
Perhaps fittingly, given the roving, restless nature of A Dark Matter — its story emerges out of the attempts of its characters to achieve a measure of peace by comparing differing versions of that single, terrifying experience — so too the author has provided an alternate version of his own novel: The Skylark, published in late 2009 in a limited hardcover by Subterranean Press. Straub explains on the back cover of The Skylark that it is “a much looser, sloppier, more wild-eyed version,” but a closer examination reveals a more complicated truth — one that sheds light on both A Dark Matter‘s strengths and its deficiencies.
The two novels mirror or ape each other in several important particulars. Both focus on the same four friends. We meet them in both books as teens in Madison, Wisconsin in the 1960s, where Straub himself lived during the same time period. Arranged around these four are several other players that appear in A Dark Matter and The Skylark, including Spencer Mallon, a hippy-ish, possibly malevolent truth seeker who serves as the catalyst for the uncanny event at the story’s epicenter; Meredith Bright, the preternaturally beautiful college student who helps bring them under Mallon’s influence; and Keith Hayward, Mallon’s psychotic lieutenant and devoted follower.
In what kind of horror, exactly, does Mallon involve the quartet? Without revealing too much, The Eel, Hootie, Boats, and Dilly participate in a ritual that goes hideously wrong. The Bear Kings and Roaring Queens (from one character’s recollection) and the tower of bodies (from another) are the least of it. Something unseen doesn’t want to be found. Something seen will be undone. The consciousness of the four friends is dispersed across rips in time and space, leaving them with unwanted premonitions of the future and horrifying insight into the past. Ultimately, Straub suggests, it doesn’t matter what happened in the meadow — it matters only that an attempt to bridge the gap between what is known and what can never be known has been made, and that we care about the people who survived the experience, even, as it happens, the sinister Mallon.
Mallon is one of Straub’s most memorable character studies: a great con artist and guru whose words may contain more than a grain of truth. His charisma and his apparent range of life experiences attract impressionable teens and college students alike. To woo his devotees, Mallon regales them with exotic accounts like one summarized by Harwell in A Dark Matter, in which Mallon had, in Tibet, “seen one man sever the hand of another, seen the blood rush down the length of the bar.”
But in The Skylark, we have the event as described by Mallon himself, and preceded by crucially theatrical preamble:
I am a traveler, yes I am, but I am no tourist. Let me tell you why…In a bar in Nepal one night, I saw a man take a huge knife from his belt, raise it in the air, and swing it down like a guillotine. The knife severed another man’s hand, right at the wrist, an amazingly clean slice. A sheet of blood ran down that bar. I saw money flow from one man to another, and the man who paid the money picked up that severed hand and threw it into the corner…And what made me a mere tourist, what had I failed to learn? It never occurred to me that I had been given a sign. A sign — not once, but twice!
This passage is worth quoting at length because it demonstrates one major difference between the two versions of the novel. A Dark Matter merely implies the full extent of Mallon’s powers of persuasion, substituting an opaque charisma for the more detailed seductions that The Skylark chronicles, and which give us a more profound understanding of his appeal to the others.
Similarly, the depictions of The Eel, Dilly, Hootie, and Boats also differ in The Skylark‘s version of the tale. While its descriptions of Mallon slowly reeling in his disciples are brilliant, these set pieces are themselves upstaged by an opening scene in which the four friends sneak into a college cafeteria and encounter Bright for the first time. This complex and lengthy scene constitutes a tour de force by Straub that ties the characters together through mannerisms, shared history, dialogue, and mutual interests, while also establishing the authenticity of the time period.
Straub’s focus in A Dark Matter, by contrast, is with his tale-teller. He opens with an extended overview of the friends and Mallon from Harwell’s point of view. In giving us more of Harwell’s perspective upfront while dropping the scenes detailed above, Straub abandons immediate, complex real-time views of the four friends and of Mallon in favor of Harwell’s later relationship with The Eel, and her friends. This deepens the characterization of Harwell — and yet Harwell is by far the least interesting character in either book. Because Harwell wasn’t in the meadow, because he is at a remove from an event that is itself at a remove due to the conflicting accounts, we never really care about him. Nothing Straub does in A Dark Matter to strengthen our sense of Harwell, and his relationship to The Eel, can change that, especially since the rest have been damaged by their shared experience in ways that underscore their bond. Indeed, we soon become impatient for Harwell to, in a sense, get out of the way of their story.
A Dark Matter‘s change of focus has its compensations, aided by changes to the novel’s chronology which serve to heighten the drama. A section involving Harwell and Dilly’s narrow escape from a plane crash that seems unnecessary in The Skylark takes on added relevance in A Dark Matter due to a welcome reshuffling of events. A chilling meeting with Bright, who is now the wife of a politician, also makes more sense in its new position in the narrative, and The Skylark‘s admittedly brilliant portrait of the psychopath Keith Hayward is reduced to a much smaller part of the whole. As a result, A Dark Matter‘s last third has an intensity, a sense of becoming privy to a sustained revelation, somewhat lacking in The Skylark.
In encountering the same events from so many different perspectives across both The Skylark and A Dark Matter, I must admit that my vision of Straub’s intent has been forever compromised, put not just through one hall of mirrors but two. Both versions of the novel seem flawed to me, and in part this may be because Straub has set such an impossible goal. And yet, in a way, the echoing and connection between these two books achieves the full and ultimate effect Straub had hoped to convey: to say that the inexplicable in this life can make us seek a myriad of ways to try to explain it, to describe it, even knowing that, as with all truly unknowable things about the world, we’re doomed to fail at the task, perhaps even suffer for our attempt. A Dark Matter and The Skylark now form, for me, a single, inseparable, super-imposed novel — ghostlike yet fiercely corporeal — that continues to interrogate itself for answers that can never be found. I’m grateful for that doubling effect, and I’m grateful that Straub has been ambitious enough to have written not one but two books that made me engage with them as a reader in such an intimate way.