Don't let all those other reviewers fool you. They've said Peter Straub is wandering further away from horror. That with The Hellfire Club Straub is examining the fabric of American society in a literate, but entertaining manner. That it's a "richly nuanced thriller," "a suspense thriller," an "intellectual-puzzle mystery with a powerful vein of psycho-thriller suspense."
True, The Hellfire Club IS all that -- but it's also a slam-bang contemporary Gothic novel that fits my definition of "cutting-edge" horror as well. Straub not only twists Gothic into something new, he abandons the supernatural while chilling us with a modern monster and a vivid view of the festering corruption of present day American society. He even takes a few witty jabs at novelists and their craft, the publishing industry, editors, fantasy that attracts cult followings, women's undergarments, lawyers, doctors, and more.
Am I blowing the lid on some conspiracy of silence, or am I the only one who sees that Straub is one dangerously insidious writer? In The Hellfire Club, Straub gleefully strips away the genteel facade of the comfortable Republican world of reactionary politics and morality that he used to great (and opposite) effect in the supernatural Ghost Story (1979). The Chowder Society of Ghost Story here becomes The Hellfire Club -- full of corrupting perversion and the evil greed of capitalist misogynist power-mongering fascists.
In addition to exposing the nasty side of American society, he's got the publishing world believing he is an erudite (quite true) mainstream novelist who is escaping that nasty "h" word marketing niche. Ha! This is horror, baby. Radical horror that confronts us with the fact that the real world is scarier than any supernatural one and that the nastiest monsters are human ones.
It's all well written and nicely wrapped in a huge and entertaining Gothic package. Nora Chancel is our endangered heroine. Her husband, Davey, is the heir to a publishing house founded and sustained by the fantasy quest novel Night Journey by Hugo Driver. Nora is struggling with her marriage, her relationship to Davey's family, the Chancels, and nightmares (left over from her stint as a field nurse in Vietnam) that have returned, triggered by the shock of a series of local murders.
The Chancels are a family with secrets. Secrets concerning the "family treasure," Night Journey; secret corruption; secrets involving the reclusive and neurotic Daisy -- wife to Alden and adoptive mother to Davey -- and her fiction; secrets about babies.
Straub takes his time setting the scene, but the novel kicks into high gear when Nora, implicated in a crime, is kidnapped from the police station by lawyer and serial killer Dick Dart. Dart is a psychotic monster who rapes, steals, cheats and lies with glee -- the perfect symbol of American society and a true heir to the corrupting, immoral greed of the House of Chancel. ("Bid'ness is bid'ness," as he tells us.) Dart is as wickedly brutal as they come, but he's also brilliant, witty and not without cynical charm. He even has a redeeming quality -- his fashion sense. Even though his makeover of the dowdy Nora is, in a way, another form of degradation ("I bust you out of jail, I buy you clothes, I'm going to give you the best haircut you ever had in your life, after that I'm going to do what your mother should have done and teach you about makeup, and you lie to me?...don't do that again unless you want to hold your guts in your hands.") it is a step in Nora's personal liberation.
Multiple plots are woven together as, on the road with the natural born killer, Nora is compelled by Dart's activities to delve into the secrets of the Chancel family. The key seems to lie in discovering what really happened the summer of 1938 at a literary gathering attended by Chancel House founder Lincoln Chancel and his source of future wealth, Hugo Driver. Mysteries are revealed and puzzles solved until (indulging in that old-fashioned standard of a Gothic novel, a thunderstorm that has disconnected phones and electricity) the final drama is played out.
But there's more than rip-roaring entertainment in The Hellfire Club. Just as there are many layers of mystery to solve there are multiple levels of truth to deal with. In fact, The Hellfire Club works on so many levels, it's sure to provide readers with more than they expect. Straub, a writer who has constantly challenged himself over the years, delights us this time with a sly switchblade hidden up the benign tweed sleeve of his traditional mainstream jacket.