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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Peter Straub doesn't write a great deal of short fiction, but he makes every story count. Magic Terror, his first collection since the memorably twisted Houses Without Doors, contains seven stories previously published in assorted anthologies. Most of these stories are novellas (Straub's preferred format), and at their frequent best they are elegantly composed, deeply disturbing reflections on the beauty and terror of the world.
Two of the entries are directly connected to Straub's Stoker Award-winning novel,The Throat. "The Ghost Village" recasts one of the central incidents from that novel: Tim Underhill's visit to the haunted village of Bong To, where he encounters the spirit of a murdered Vietnamese child, along with the ghosts of two recently deceased platoon mates. Straub's account of Bong To and its aftermath is reshaped for inclusion in this novella and is framed by a story that does not appear in the original novel: the story of Private Leonard Hamnet and his attempts to return home to "take care" of his wife and young son, who has been sexually molested by the leader of a local church choir. "The Ghost Village," which works quite well as a stand-alone narrative, received a well-deserved World Fantasy Award as Best Novella of 1993.
"Bunny Is Good Bread," originally published as "Fee," consists entirely of material that was excised from the final version of The Throat. "Bunny" tells the wrenching story of Fielding "Fee" Bandolier, an abused young boy who will grow up to becomeaspectacularly successful serial killer. The story centers on key moments in Fee's spiritual and psychological disintegration: his mother's death at the hands of his drunken, murderous father and his own seduction by a local child molester named Heinz Stenmitz.
"Bunny Is Good Bread" is the definitive treatment of one of Straub's classic themes: the making of a monster through the systematic application of violence, cruelty, and neglect. It is also, arguably, the single most desolating piece of fiction that Straub has ever written.
"Ashputtle," a story whose title and primary imagery are derived from the Brothers Grimm, features a serial killer of a very different type. The central figure, a grotesquely overweight kindergarten teacher named Mrs. Asch, sees herself as an embodiment of the abused, abandoned Ashputtle of the fairy tale. She also sees herself as an artist who sometimes resorts to murder to drive home her fundamental lesson: that hope is not "an essential component of the universe." Straub has written frequently about the consolations of art. "Ashputtle," by contrast, takes a chilling look at what can happen to the artistic impulse when it is fueled — and warped — by bitterness, misery, and rage.
"Pork Pie Hat," a personal favorite, is a powerfully enigmatic novella about murder, music, and childhood memories. The story focuses on a legendary jazz musician who is known, simply, as "Hat" and who is a fictional analogue of jazz great Lester Young. During the convoluted course of this story within a story, the narrator — a nameless Columbia University grad student — attempts to come to terms with a traumatic, unresolved incident from Hat's Mississippi childhood. In the process, he offers us a moving portrait of the nature and meaning — "the whole long curve" — of a master musician's life.
"Hunger: An Introduction" was, in fact, written as a kind of mock introduction to an anthology of ghost stories that Straub himself edited in 1995. "Hunger" is narrated by the late Frank Wardwell, a former embezzler whose career ended in murder, disgrace, and eventual execution in the electric chair. Frank's story begins as a lecture on the most common misperceptions regarding ghosts and ends as a disquisition on the theme of supernatural hunger and on the beauty of the world as seen through the eyes of the dead. This one is notable for the vibrantly comic voice that Straub created for his unlovable narrator, a voice at once pompous and preening, fatuous and overbearing, endlessly self-justifying and steeped, at all times, in an unimpeachable aura of self-regard.
"Isn't It Romantic?" is an atypically conventional story written for an Adams Round Table anthology called Murder on the Run. In keeping with that implied theme, Straub gives us the ironic account of an itinerant professional assassin attempting to complete the final assignment of his career. The assassin, known only as N, has traveled to the Basque region of France to eliminate a troublesome arms dealer. N has carried out this sort of mission a hundred times before, but this time nothing works as planned.
"Isn't It Romantic?" is a cool, assured, thoroughly entertaining performance, but it lacks the eccentric, obsessional power that characterizes Straub's best, most representative short fiction. Magic Terror closes with the strange and brilliant "Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff," a long, extremely unsettling novella loosely patterned after Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener. In Straub's version, a successful Wall Street financier discovers that his wife is having an affair with a hated rival. Blinded by rage, he hires Clubb and Cuff — enigmatic representatives of an "invisible design" — to serve as the agents of his revenge. Before the story is over, the nameless narrator will be taken on a "great journey" that will alter his universe in fundamental ways and change his life forever. "Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff" is both a meditation on cosmic mysteries and a penetrating commentary on greed, corruption, and the poisoning of the spirit. It is also an authentic black comic masterpiece that brings this long-overdue collection to a resonant, memorable conclusion.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub,At the Foot of the Story Tree, has just been published by Subterranean Press.