A Dark Matter [NOOK Book]


The incomparable master of horror and suspense returns with a powerful, brilliantly terrifying novel that redefines the genre in original and unexpected ways.

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...
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A Dark Matter

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The incomparable master of horror and suspense returns with a powerful, brilliantly terrifying novel that redefines the genre in original and unexpected ways.

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.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this tour de force from bestseller Straub (In the Night Room), four high school friends in 1966 Madison, Wis.—Hootie Bly, Dilly Olson, Jason Boatman, and Lee Truax—fall under the spell of charismatic “wandering guru” Spencer Mallon. During an occult ceremony in which Mallon attempts to break through to a higher reality, something goes horribly awry leaving one participant dead. Decades later, Lee's writer husband interviews the quartet to find out what happened. In Roshomon-like fashion, each relates a slightly different account of the trauma they experienced. Straub masterfully shows how the disappointments, downturns, and failed promise of the four friends' lives may have stemmed from this youthful experience, and suggests, by extension, that the malignant evil they helped unleash into the world has tainted all hope ever since. Brilliant in its orchestration and provocative in its speculations, this novel ranks as one of the finest tales of modern horror. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Forty years after a horrific event experienced by a group of high school seniors, the now middle-aged participants individually review what happened. In 1960, under the spell of a charismatic, slightly older man who claimed special powers, the teens had been led to share what may have been a delusion or an actual, spectacular murder. The author's well-recognized skill in building suspense and subtly revealing aspects of character strengthens this complex plot. The basic question—is evil innately human, or is it something external?—is appropriately and perhaps disturbingly left for the reader's speculation. While hints of the presence of supernatural beings are dropped frequently, there are repeated but only brief mentions of bloody slaughter rather than the extensive juicy depictions that TV and videogame addicts might expect. VERDICT Bram Stoker Award winner Straub's (Ghost Story; Lost Boy; Lost Girl) latest offering in new wave horror will thrill his many fans and attract new readers. A very good choice for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/09.]—Jonathan Pearce, California State Univ. at Stanislaus, Stockton\
Kirkus Reviews
A successful novelist obsessively revisits a fateful night he missed back in the '60s in this intense, ambitious, but unfocused saga of an encounter with ultimate evil. Lee Harwell was once an ordinary high-school senior in Madison, Wis., with a tomboy girlfriend, Lee Truax (dubbed "the Eel" to distinguish her from him), and a handful of other schoolmates-Howard (Hootie) Bly, Jason (Boats) Boatman, Donald (Dilly) Olson-apparently destined for nothing special. Then peripatetic guru Spencer Mallon blew into town and, assisted by his irresistible blond lover Meredith Bright, charmed all the friends but Lee to join him and two University of Wisconsin students, Keith Hayward and Brett Milstrap, in an obscure nocturnal ritual in a nearby meadow. By the time the night was over, Keith was dead and horribly mutilated, and Meredith had disappeared. The years since have treated the survivors very differently. Milstrap has pointedly failed to grow up; the Eel has married Lee and gone blind; Meredith has resurfaced and married money and power; Hootie hasn't budged from the mental hospital to which he was sent, speaking only in quotations from The Scarlet Letter and a dictionary of obscure words; Boats has moved from shoplifting to helping merchants catch shoplifters; and Dilly, apparently the group's leader, has failed to do much of anything. When Lee's agent urges him to try his hand at nonfiction, he recalls the mysterious incident and determines to find out exactly what he missed. As if he'd tapped a rock with a magic wand, a stream of reminiscences, childhood tales, digressive episodes, retrospective analyses and increasingly hair-raising scenarios comes pouring out. But the truth of the BigWhatsit remains shrouded in murky visions and oracular observations ("time isn't linear . . . it goes sideways"), even after the last veil is rent asunder. Straub's last few fantasies (In the Night Room, 2004, etc.) have been ever more baroque, but this tall, dark tale beats them all for heaven-storming scale and wheels within wheels.
From the Publisher
“Straub’s return to all-out horror. . . . [He] does it on his own terms, beautifully blending monsters and demons and indescribable evil into a melancholy novel shaped and crafted as carefully as literature, not pulp entertainment. Straub’s writing has rarely been better or more precise.” —Miami Herald
“An alchemy of psychological suspense, supernatural horror and cultural history. . . . Ambitious in its scope and challenging in its telling. . . . Explosive.” —Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“A modern-day supernatural Rashomon. . . . [A Dark Matter] leaves one satisfied, still eager for the next book by one of the most adroit masters of the supernatural thriller.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“[A Dark Matter] has it all: shifting perspectives, nested flashbacks, a story that spans four decades, and an attractive, charming cast.” —The Onion A.V. Club
“Vivid, mysterious. . . . An elegant, multilayered reminiscence. . . . A rich, multi-perspective take on a murky collegiate misadventure in 1966.” —TimeOut New York
“[Straub] is a master at blurring the supernatural, the real-world-scary and the monsters in your psyche.” —Cleveland Plain-Dealer
“A powerful, original and utterly engrossing novel about the palpability of evil and its costs. . . . . Nothing less than stunning.” —The Globe and Mail
“Terrifying. . . . A Dark Matter is populated with vivid, sympathetic characters, and driven by terrors both human and supernatural. It’s the kind of book that’s impossible to put down once it has been picked up. It kept me reading far into the night. Straub builds otherworldly terror without ever losing touch with his attractive cast of youngsters, who age beautifully. Put this one high on your list.” —Stephen King

“Part Rashomon, part The Turn of the Screw. Peter Straub may well be the most important voice in suspense fiction today.” —Lincoln Child

“American master Peter Straub takes the sweep of our freaky history over the past forty years, subjects it to all the elegant gifts of madness and arts of haunting of which he is the wicked king, and finds himself in possession of a masterpiece.” —Michael Chabon

“I’ve been reading Peter Straub since I was a teenager, and his work is hardwired into my brain.  A Dark Matter contains echoes of all that has been great about Straub’s previous work and builds upon it. This Rashomon-like tale is as spooky and frightening as anything he has written, but it’s also an intense and moving celebration of love. Out of the darkness comes, ultimately, a surprising and haunting sense of joy.” —Dan Chaon

“Increasingly, Peter Straub brilliantly defies and blurs literary genres. A Dark Matter is a page-turning thriller of every sort: psychological, sociological, epistemological. Plus, it’s really scary.” —Lorrie Moore

“A devastatingly good novel.  In its investigation of a dark ritual that casts a decades-long shadow, A Dark Matter makes you question all you thought you knew about horror and about literature.  But it goes well beyond that: it messes with your sense of reality and then, just when you’re getting your bearings, scrambles it again.” —Brian Evenson

The Barnes & Noble Review

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. Theevent 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.

--Jeff VanderMeer

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385530132
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/9/2010
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 83,397
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Peter Straub
PETER STRAUB is the New York Times bestselling author of more than a dozen novels. Two of his most recent, Lost Boy Lost Girl and In the Night Room, are winners of the Bram Stoker Award. He lives in New York City.

From the Hardcover edition.
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    1. Hometown:
      New York City
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 2, 1943
    2. Place of Birth:
      Milwaukee, Wisconsin
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1965; M.A., Columbia University, 1966
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

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 floor 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 cornfield 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 five 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.”

Two huge kids in Southern Illinois sweatshirts, recent graduates by the look of them, jammed their chairs back and marched straight toward the action. This is Chicago, after all, where big, athletic- looking dudes sprout out of the sidewalks like dandelions on a suburban lawn. Without speaking to anyone, they came up on the homeless guy’s flanks, hoisted him by his elbows, and transported him outside. If he had gone limp, they would have had a little trouble, but he was rigid with panic and gave them no more difficulty than would a cigar store Indian. He went stiff as a marble statue. When he went by, I took in his blubbery lips and brown, broken teeth. His bloodshot eyes had a glazed look. The man kept saying, obstreperous obstreperous obstreperous, but the word had become meaningless to him. He was using it for protection, like a totem, and he thought as long as he kept saying it, he was out of danger.

When I looked into those flat, unseeing eyes, an utterly unforeseen thought jolted me. The impact felt like a blow, and brought with it a cryptic sense of illumination as brief as the flaring of a match.

I knew someone like that. This terrified man with a one-word vocabulary reminded me so vividly of someone that he might have been that person, now in the act of being ejected onto Rush Street. But . . . who in the world could it have been? No one I knew was anything like the damaged character now staggering forward and back on the sidewalk beyond the great windows, still whispering his totemic word.

A voice only I could hear said, No one? Think again, Lee. Deep in my chest, something big and decisive—something I had been ignoring and thrusting out of view literally for decades—stirred in its sleep and twitched its leathery wings. Whatever had nearly awakened tasted, in part, like shame, but shame was by no means all of it.

Although my first response was to turn away from whatever was causing my internal tumult (and turn away I did, with as much of my native resolve as I could summon), the memory of having witnessed an inexplicable illumination clung to me like a cat that had jumped onto my back and stuck its claws into my skin.

The next thing I did involved a typical bit of unconscious misdirection—I tried to believe that my distress was caused by the register girl’s stupid language. Maybe that sounds snobbish, and maybe it is snobbish, but I’ve written eight novels, and I pay attention to the way people use words. Maybe too much attention. So when I finally stood in front of the young woman who had told that ruined creature that he “needed” to leave her “store,” I expressed my unhappiness by ordering an Anaheim Scrambler, which comes with smoked bacon, cheddar cheese, avocado, and a lot of other stuff including hash browns, and a corn muffin, too. (Alas, I am one of those people who tend to use food as a way of dodging unwelcome emotions.) Anyhow, when did people start framing commands in terms of neediness? And how long had people in the restaurant business been calling their establishments “stores”? Couldn’t people see the ugliness and inaccuracy of this crap? The creature within me rolled back into its uneasy sleep, temporarily lulled.

I parked myself at an empty table, snapped open my paper—the Guardian Review—and avoided looking at the big front windows until I heard one of the staff bringing my tray to me. For some reason, I turned around and glanced through the window, but of course that wretched, half- sane character had fled. Why did I care what had happened to him, anyhow? I didn’t, apart from feeling a sort of generic pity for his suffering. And that poor devil did not remind me of anyone I knew or had once known. For a couple of seconds, a kind of misguided déjà vu had come into play. Nobody thought of déjà vu as anything except a momentary delusion. It gave you an odd buzz of recognition that felt like occult knowledge, but the buzz was psychic flotsam, of no value whatsoever.

Forty-five minutes later, I was walking back to my house, hoping that the day’s work would go well. The minor disturbance in the Corner Bakery hardly counted even as a memory anymore, except for the moment when I was sliding my key into the front-door lock and saw once again his glassy, bloodshot eyes and heard him whispering obstreperous obstreperous. “I need you to stop doing that,” I said out loud, and tried to smile as I stepped into my bright, comfortable foyer. Then I said, “No, I do not know anyone even faintly like you.” For half a second, I thought someone was going to ask me what I was talking about, but my wife was on an extended visit to Washington, D.C., and in the whole of my splendid house, not a single living thing could hear me.

Work, unfortunately, was of no use at all. I had been planning to use the days my wife was gone to get a jump-start on a new novel then known as Her Level Gaze. Never mind the total lameness of the title, which I intended to change as soon as I came up with a better one. Atop my oversized desk, a folder bulging with notes, outlines, and ideas for chapters sat beside my iMac, and a much smaller folder beside it held the ten awkward pages I had

managed so far to excrete. Once I started poking it, the novel that had seemed so promising when still a shimmer of possibility had turned into a slow-moving, snarling animal. The male protagonist seemed to be a bit slow-moving, too. Although I did not want to admit it, the main character, the young woman with the disconcertingly level gaze, would have eaten him for breakfast in a single bite.

At the back of my mind was a matter I did not actually want to think about that day, a far too tempting suggestion made some years ago, God, maybe as many as five, by David Garson, my agent, who told me that my publisher had, who knows how seriously, proposed to him over lunch that at least once I should write a nonfiction book, not merely a memoir, but a book about something.

“Lee,” David said, “don’t get paranoid on me, he wasn’t saying he wanted you to stop writing novels, of course he wasn’t. They think you have an interesting way of seeing things, that’s their main point here, and they think it might be useful if just once, and I mean just once, Lee Harwell could turn this reader-friendly yet challenging trait of his onto some event in the real world. The event could be huge, or it might be something smaller and more personal. He added that he thought a book like that would probably do you some good in the marketplace. He has a point there, actually. I mean, I think it’s an extraordinarily interesting idea. Do you want to consider it? Why don’t you just mull it over for a couple of days, see what occurs to you? I mean, just as a suggestion.”

“David,” I said, “no matter what my intentions are, everything I write winds up turning into fiction, including my letters to friends.” Yet David is a good guy, and he does look out for me. I promised to think about it, which was disingenuous of me because in fact I already had been turning over the possibility of doing a nonfiction book. An unpublished and unpublishable manuscript I had come across on eBay a couple of months earlier, a kind of memoir by a Milwaukee homicide detective named George Cooper, seemed to crack open an old, officially unsolved series of murders that had much interested my friends and me when we were in grade school and high school. Of even greater interest to me right now was that these “Ladykiller” homicides appeared to have an at least tangential connection to a dark matter that involved these friends of mine, including the amazing girl who became my wife, though not me, in our last year in high school. But of that I did not wish to think—it involved a young man named Keith Hayward who had been, it seemed, a sick, evil child tutored in his sickness and evil by a truly demonic figure, his uncle. All of that was in the sort-of memoir Detective Cooper had written out in his cursive, old-school hand, and even as I put the story together I was determined to resist the gravitational pull it worked on me. The immense theological question of evil felt too great, too complex to address with the tools and weapons I possessed. What I knew best had only to do with stories and how they proceeded, and a mere instinct for narrative wasn’t enough to take on the depths of the Hayward story. That my wife and our friends had come in contact with creepy Keith Hayward also put me off.

At the usual hour of one-thirty, hunger pulled me into the kitchen, where I put together a salad, warmed up some soup, and made half a sandwich with pumpernickel bread, Black Forest ham, coleslaw, and Russian dressing. Dinah Lion, my assistant, who would otherwise have been present, did not come in on Mondays, so the isolation of morning remained intact. Dinah would be gone for the next 10 days or so, also, in an arrangement we had worked out with my accountants that was going to let her join her parents in Tuscany at half pay in exchange for some juggling with the vacation she normally took in August.

For some reason, the second I sat down before my solitary little meal, I felt like weeping. Something vital was slipping away from me, and for once this sense wasn’t just a fantasy about the novel I was writing. The huge wave of sadness building up within me was connected to something more critical than Her Level Gaze; it was something I had lived with for much longer than I had my foundering book. Tears steamed up into my eyes and trembled there. For an excruciating moment, I was in the ridiculous position of grieving for a person, a place, or a condition that remained hidden from me. Someone I loved had died when we were both very young—that’s what it felt like—and I had committed the dim-witted crime of never stopping to mourn that loss until just now. This must have been the source of the shame I tasted before I started ramming scrambled eggs, avocado, and cheddar cheese into my mouth. I had let this person disappear.

At the thought of the breakfast I had forced down my throat in the Corner Bakery, my hunger curdled. The food on the table looked poisoned. Tears slid down my face, and I stood up to turn toward the counter and grab some tissues. After I had wiped my face and blown my nose, I bagged up the half sandwich, covered the salad bowl with clingy film, and slammed the soup bowl into the microwave, where I could be counted on to forget about it until the next time I opened the thing. Then I made an aimless circuit of the kitchen. The book I had begun writing seemed to have locked me out, which I usually take to mean that it’s waiting for some other, younger author to come along and treat it right. It would be at least a day before I could face my desk again, and when I did I would probably have to dream up some other project.

From the Paperback edition.
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 89 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 14, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Not recommended

    I came to this new Straub book filled with anticipation. I have been a fan of his writing for decades, going back to Koko. I've not read everything he has written, but I have read a lot of it, both short form and novel length. His short story Pork Pie Hat is one of my favorite short stories...by anybody. Some might argue that all genre fiction falls short of attaining the status of art. I am not one of those people, but I can admit that there has been a proliferation of fluff in the horror genre. At his best, Mr. Straub elevates genre fiction to the level of true literature. But, and it's a big "but", at his worst, Straub comes across as intentionally obscure and embarrassingly self-indulgent, and "A Dark Matter" is a prime example. Ostensibly an account of a terrifying event that happened to the narrator while he was in high school during the 60's, or more accurately, an event that happened to a group of the narrator's friends, as the narrator chose not to share the experience with them...as he never tires of reminding the reader, over and over and over. So this earth-shattering event that changed the lives of this group of friends, which may, in fact, have changed the very nature of reality as we know it, is only an event that the reader learns about by heresay. The narrators eyes are, perforce, the readers eyes. Since he never witnessed this Dark Matter directly, then the reader never does either. And this is a fatal flaw. I think it is Wordsworth who gives the origin of poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquility." That's all well and good for poetry...but for a story of this sort I think we need more emotion and a little less tranquility. I'm not saying that Mr. Straub needs to take his cue from the splatterpunks of the 80s. But the reader needs to actually FEEL something. The narrator has buried his memories of the event so deeply that he seems to have no real feelings about it...ergo, the reader feels nothing, too. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I did not finish A Dark Matter. But I TRIED. It's pacing is glacial. I found that my attention was constantly drifting. Mr. Straub seems oddly reticent to approach his subject matter directly, choosing instead to sidle up to it over and over again, only to slip away again. I found myself wishing he would just get to the point. One wonders if, just maybe, he was suffering (like his narrator) from a touch of writer's block. I WANTED to like this book...but it just didn't have a strong enough hook to pull me in. Life is too short to waste it reading bad books. I'm not a fast reader, but I finished The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss in less than a week, and it was nearly 900 pages. In the same amount of time, I managed to read barely 60 pages of A Dark Matter. And that speaks volumes.

    7 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 25, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    convoluted but enjoyable horror thriller

    Nomadic charismatic guru Spencer Mallon arrives in Madison, Wisconsin accompanied by his beautiful lover Meredith Bright and subservient University of Wisconsin students, Keith Hayward and Brett Milstrap. The charmer invites several high school students which include Lee Harwell, his tomboy girlfriend, Lee "Eel" Truax, Howard "Hootie" Bly, Jason "Boats" Boatman, and Donald "Dilly" Olson to attend a night ritual. Before the sun rises, Hayward is dead and Bright vanished.

    Over the years each has coped differently to that horrid night that changed all of them. Milstrap has avoided responsibility preferring Peter Pan to adulthood. The Lees married, but Eel has since lost her sight. Bly was taken to a mental institution on that horrific night and remains there while citing Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter as his only form of speech. Bright came out of whatever hole she had hidden inside of to marry into power. Boatsman went from shoplifter extraordinaire to shoplifting crime prevention extraordinaire. Filly Olson has never moved on. All will converge to relive what each chose to psychologically forget about that deadly night when novelist Harwell writes a nonfiction account of the horror that still impacts all of those who attended Mallon's malevolent ritual.

    This is a convoluted but enjoyable horror thriller as Peter Straub keeps the audience guessing whether what happened was a group psychological hysteria or something evil from beyond. All of the survivors realize they do not have total recall of what occurred in spite of the college student's death. Although at times difficult to fathom what truly happened as murky memories make for a murky story line, fans who prefer something different will want to know what the students faced on the night that changed each of them.

    Harriet Klausner

    5 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 17, 2011

    Straub Strikes Out¿

    I love Peter Straub, and have read practically everything he has written, and loved pretty much everything I've read of his (my favorites being ¿If You Could See Me Now¿, ¿Shadowland¿, ¿Mystery¿, and ¿Mr. X¿), but I really struggled with this. I have read a couple of reviews saying how they were having to reread sections because it was as if they had fallen asleep, well, I kept having that same problem as well. It pains me to pan a novel by Peter Straub, but so far, this one is confusing as h*ll and very bad. I kept asking myself "what the h*ll is this even about?!" as I continued to plunge through it. All the reviews I have read about it, whether good or bad, all seem to say the same thing about the plot being about four friends recollecting an incident from their past with a guru named Spencer Mallon; and the flashbacks are all told over and over again from different perspectives. And, that seemed to be a major complaint with a lot of people. However, I don¿t even see the novel doing that! I feel it started out strong within the first 100 or so pages, but then quickly deteriorated into a jumbled confusing mess. I was looking forward to the ¿Rashomon¿ style of storytelling that I read so many reviewers claiming this book had, but it is not in here. Maybe I am reading another copy of ¿A Dark Matter¿ than everybody else read; or at least I was questioning that over and over as I struggled to keep reading this. Again, it really pains me to say this because Straub is one of my all-time favorite authors, some of his novels I hail as the best pieces of literature ever, but this is not one of his better works; matter of fact, very far from it. I finally got around to finishing the novel. And, as much as I liked the immensely layered writing, the rich characterization, and even the final denoument of what happened in the meadow as told by the Eel, the final person to share her memories with the group, I still found it to be a very deadening thud of a bad read. The writing was so textured and had some really deep hidden gems in it, but overall, when I got to the very last page, I was left thinking "so what?!" Again, this pains me to say anything negative about a piece of literature by one of the chief writers working today, but this is not a book I can recommend. But either way I am glad I read it, and I may read it again in the future, but I am sure I will come to the same conclusion, the same opinion, the same result: This was not Straub's strongest effort by far! Thank you. :>)

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 13, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    An original story, but...

    I've read The Talisman and Black House which Mr. Straub co-wrote with Stephen King, and thought I'd give one of his stand-alone novels a try. So, I picked up A Dark Matter and was looking forward to enjoying it. Overall, it's an extremely well-written book, and the plot and story is very good and very original. Unfortunately, I only really enjoyed half of the book. The parts of Lee and Don traveling and tracking down their old friends to try and unravel some of the mystery of what happened (You'll have to read to understand) were the parts I enjoyed reading. The monologues of their friends explaining what exactly did happen were at times almost impossible to comprehend and/or follow. Mr. Straub aimed for weird and far out there, and he hit the nail on the head. Unfortunately, it may have been a bit too far out there and at times left me concentrating way too hard trying to decipher what I was reading and see it in my head. This may not be the case for some, but for me this book was a very talented writer with a very unique vision that may have proved to be too hard to put into words.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 16, 2010

    Read Donna Tartt's The Secret History, Instead

    This book has a boring plot, uninteresting characters, and horror elements that aren't scary. For a more interesting, better-written book that has a somewhat similar plot, read Donna Tartt's The Secret History.

    2 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 12, 2014

    Okay for Straub

    Dark matter was a pretty good read. However, It wasn't near the top of my favorites for Straub. I didn't find too many of the characters very likable and the whole "incident in the meadow" even after reading the different interpretations was still difficult to follow. I suppose if you love Straub read it. If you are new to the author I would read Koko or the Talisman.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2013

    Makes no sense

    There's a reason this book has only two stars. It deserves it! This one needs to be on the discount Nook shelf.

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  • Posted August 24, 2012

    Try anything else Straub

    I agree with the other reviewers who are Straub fans but pretty much hated this book. I found nothing terrifying. The descriptions of the demons and visions read like an LSD trip, outrageously bizarre but with no continuity and no horror except for physical mutilations. It is never made clear what was so special about Eel or why she had the pivotal role, nor what her continuing relationship with Mallon was.A boy is murdered and mutilated and everyone there goes free. Besides not making much sense, I found the tale boring and about 4 times too long.
    The best part, since I listened to the audio version, was the reader whose voices help me visualize the personalities of the characters.

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  • Posted August 22, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Highly Recommend

    Great read...Peter Straub at his finest.

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  • Posted July 29, 2011

    I Also Recommend:

    Don't waste your time...

    Peter Straub is normally a great author but I don't know what he was thinking of when he wrote this. It's like someone else used his name. The story jumps around too much, I had to re-read the same pages and paragraphs over and over again to figure out what was going on. Definitely not a thriller in any sense. I kept thinking that if I read a few more pages it will get better. But nope, just got worse and worse. It was nothing like the summary explains.

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  • Posted May 29, 2011

    more from this reviewer


    This was the first Straub book I had read. The story was very hard to get into. I hope all his books aren't like this one.

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  • Posted May 23, 2011

    Not the best

    Well written, at times interesting but got so weird at the end kind of ruined it for me.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 15, 2011

    Just A Bad Book

    I don't know what Straub was doing while writing this book , but please don't do it anymore . This was a waste of words . Selling this book for money should be a crime .I did find a use for this book , it was good kindling for my fireplace . The idea was good , but it stops there . This was the first book I tried by Straub {hows my luck] and the last !

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  • Posted April 24, 2011

    good read

    this was a good book but it kind of floundered in the middle.the story could of been told without alot of the excess 'information'.

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  • Posted March 17, 2011

    I Also Recommend:

    An unexpected disappointment

    Boy, this was a hard book to slog through. I can't quite put my finger on it, but it was incredibly hard to care about anyone in this book - and so equally hard to care what happened to them. Definitely not one of Peter Straub's finer moments. Still, I remain a loyal Straub fan.

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  • Posted March 9, 2011

    Slogging Through Chest-Deep Oatmeal

    Eye-crossingly boring...and that's a shame, because I really like stories structured like "Waltz With Bashir" & "The Forth Kind." Honestly, I struggled through the first 50 pages of this book and I wanted it to work; I wanted it to grow more interesting. But no dice, so I started skipping pages (and then entire chapters). Maybe I'll Wikipedia the synopsis someday, but right now I don't even care how it ended...like the book, I just want this review to be over.

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  • Posted January 5, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    I tried, I really did...

    ...but this book was boring beyond words. After starting and stopping several times, then skipping entire sections looking for something to capture my interest, I finally gave up and put this one in my "take-it-to-Half-Price-Books pile." Disappointing.

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  • Posted August 26, 2010

    Too bad

    I love Peter Straub..but this book is not his best moment. I finished it out of loyalty but I was bored to tears and really didn't CARE what had happened to the characters.
    The fawning over the "Eel" character was a bit much for me. Can't figure out WHY she was so fawnewd over.

    I wait for his next book and chalk this one up to the fact that no one is perfect

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2010


    I have enjoyed most of this authors books, especially the ones coauthored by Stephen King, but this is one of the worst books that I have ever plodded through. The plot is boring and it was an effort to even finish the book. This would be among the worst 5 books I have ever read and I am 60 years old!

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  • Posted June 26, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Dark Matter

    I was very excited to start this book. But when I got into it, it wasn't everything I expected to be. It had a great plot and characters, but it could have been a little more explanation. Cause it kind of left you wondering did you read it right? Is it about hallucination? or Demon ancient spirit?......

    I like how Peter Straub took each character and had them to tell the story from there point of view. I liked that a lot, the most interesting characters were Meredith and Eel. To me they had more in site of the story itself.

    But its a great story, but I wish it was just a little more!!!

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