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Mr. X

Mr. X

3.5 20
by Peter Straub

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For more than two decades Peter Straub has engrossed, entertained, and terrified us with his dazzling blend of cool artistry and mad, spine-tingling imagination. With Mr. X, the bestselling author of Ghost Story, The Talisman (with Stephen King), and The Hellfire Club takes us into the darkest dimensions of the human psyche and proves once again that


For more than two decades Peter Straub has engrossed, entertained, and terrified us with his dazzling blend of cool artistry and mad, spine-tingling imagination. With Mr. X, the bestselling author of Ghost Story, The Talisman (with Stephen King), and The Hellfire Club takes us into the darkest dimensions of the human psyche and proves once again that he is without peer in the realm of psychological suspense and horror, a master storyteller whose unique and powerful gifts qualify him to be called the Edgar Allan Poe of our times.

Mr. X is Straub's original and startling take on the theme of the doppelgänger. Ned Dunstan's birthday is fast approaching, and every year on this date, Ned experiences a paralyzing seizure in which he is forced to witness scenes of ruthless slaughter perpetrated by a mysterious and malevolent figure in black whom Ned calls Mr. X.
Ned has been drawn back to his hometown, Edgerton, Illinois, by a premonition that his mother, Star, is dying. Before she loosens her hold on life, she imparts to Ned the name of his father, never before disclosed, and warns him that he is in grave danger. Despite her foreboding, Ned's determination to learn as much as possible about his absent father ignites a series of extraordinary adventures that gradually reveal the heart of both his own identity and that of his entirely fantastic family: He discovers that he is shadowed by an identical twin brother who can pass through doors and otherwise defy the laws of nature; he becomes the lead suspect in three violent deaths; he investigates the secret shadow-world within Edgerton; he learns to"eat time" and remembers the one occasion when he and his sinister brother united into a single being. Finally, at the moment of battle, he must call upon everything he has learned to save his own life.
Brimming with the author's trademark wit, understated eloquence, vibrant characters, and brilliant sense of pace, Mr. X displays Peter Straub at the top of his form.

Editorial Reviews

Gary K. Wolfe
Despite several scenes of spectacularly gruesome murder, Mr. X is a complex novel that engages in an active and often witty critique of the horror genre while staking an authoritative claim to being part of of it.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Since the publication of Koko in 1988, Straub has specialized in macabre mysteries dense with the details of small-town life and cast with ordinary people who find that the extraordinary crimes they investigate raise doubts about their own moral integrity. In this bravura new outing, he returns to his horror roots, lacing an ingenious whodunit with an intoxicating shot of the supernatural. From childhood, Ned Dunstan has experienced precognitive visions, a recurring dream of being tethered to a shadow and "the sense that something crucially significant, something without which I could never be whole, was missing." Summoned home to Edgerton, Ill., by a premonition of his mother's death on the eve of his 35th birthday, Ned finds himself implicated in a tangle of felonies and murders, all of which point to someone strenuously manipulating events to frame him. Digging into local history, he finds reason to believe that the mysterious father he never knew, or possibly a malignant doppelg nger, are pulling the strings. Meanwhile, Mr. X, a homicidal misanthrope who reads H.P. Lovecraft's otherworldly horror fiction as gospel, cuts a swath of supernatural destruction across the country, en route to a showdown with his son, the "shadow-self" whom he must annihilate. Discerning readers will recognize this surprise-filled tale of tortuous family relationships as a modern variation on Lovecraft's classic shocker "The Dunwich Horror." But Straub turns his pulp model inside out, transforming its vast cosmic mystery into an ingrown odyssey of self-discovery and a probing study of human nature. His evocative prose, a seamless splice of clipped hard-boiled banter and poetic reflection, contributes to the thick atmosphere of apprehension that makes this one of the most invigorating horror reads of the year. BOMC main selection. (Aug.) FYI: This spring, Subterranean Press published a chapbook, Peter and PTR: Two Discarded Prefaces and an Introduction, that includes framing material that Straub wrote for, and then cut from, Mr. X. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The "Mr. X" of the title is the shade that seems to follow Ned Dunstan through life. Ned is the only son of Star, a part-time lounge singer and itinerant artist who comes from an unusually talented family. As Ned states early on in the book, he was always looking for his shadow. He doesn't know his father growing up but learns the truth about him in the course of the book. What Ned eventually finds is the crux of the plot--suffice it to say that his discoveries are unsettling. Mr. X proves that Straub (The Hellfire Club) is worthy of his reputation as a master of horror. Compelling writing and well-drawn characters make this novel very readable, but the labyrinthine plot seems forced; it does include some sexual situations and some violence. Recommended for all suspense/ horror collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/99.]--Alicia Graybill, Lincoln City Libs., NE Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Amusing and intelligent, Mr. X also occasionally scares the wits out of you with straight-out in-your-face ghastly horror...Multi-leveled, even meta-fictional, the novel is written with an assured and distinctly powerful style that, along with its suspenseful complex plot and intriguing characters, enthralls the reader.. Mr. X is a modern masterpiece of the macabre from a vital and significant American author.
Kirkus Reviews
Admirers of H.P. Lovecraft's classic supernatural tales will find much of interest in this intricately contrived horror story. The protagonist, Ned Dunstan, a computer programmer whose 35th birthday is fast approaching, in fact "enters" a world specifically inspired by Lovecraft's demon-infested "Cthulha Mythos" as he returns to his Illinois hometown for the funeral of his mother Valerie (a.k.a. "Star," an itinerant jazz singer whose rootless life made her almost as much a stranger to Ned as was the father he never knew). Almost immediately, inexplicable things begin to happen: Ned is accused of crimes he couldn't possibly have committed; the dream that has troubled him since childhood—of his shadow pursuing and threatening him—edges ever closer to reality; and reunions with his Illinois relatives turn up evidence that he may have been the son of Edward Rinehart, a mad writer of supernatural fiction himself descended from a family cursed for its dalliance in slave-trading and witchcraft. Straub (The Hellfire Club, 1996, etc.) pulls several tangled narrative strings adroitly, as Ned discovers his facility for levitation and time travel, among other dark arts. Intermittent chapters presented from the viewpoint of the self-styled "Mr. X" offer teasing glimpses of the truths Ned labors to uncover, as the story moves right along, lifting plot elements here and there from Stephen King and Shirley Jackson as well as Lovecraft—and, incidentally, featuring several dead-on parodies of the latter's notoriously purplish prose. Twins separated at birth, antiquarians and poltergeists, a plucky love interest whose own family harbors dark secrets, a fiery climax straight out of theearly Frankenstein movies, and a denouement offering no fewer than three turns of the screw: Straub doesn't miss a trick, or omit a cliché peculiar to the genre. Overlong and sometimes embarrassingly lurid, though more often than not quite entertaining. Not by any means Straub's most accomplished work, but one of his more interesting recent books all the same. (Book-of-the-Month Club main selection)

From the Publisher
"Ghastly, hide-your-eyes horror; when Peter Straub turns on all jets, no one in the scream factory can equal him."

—Entertainment Weekly

Product Details

San Val
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
4.48(w) x 7.08(h) x 1.43(d)
Age Range:
12 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

Stupid me--I fell right into the old pattern and spent a week pretending I was a moving target. All along, a part of me knew that I was hitching toward southern Illinois because my mother was passing. When your mother's checking out, you get yourself back home.

She had been living in East Cicero with two elderly brothers above their club, the Panorama. On weekends she sang two nightly sets with the house trio. She was doing what she had always done, living without worrying about consequences, which tends to make the consequences come harder and faster than they do for other people. When she could no longer ignore her sense of fatality, my mother kissed the old brothers goodbye and went back to the only place I'd be able to find her.

Star had been eighteen when I was born, a generous, large-souled girl with no more notion of a settled life than a one-eyed cat, and after I turned four I bounced back and forth between Edgerton and a parade of foster homes. My mother was one of those people who are artists without a specific art. She apprenticed herself sequentially and many times over to painting, writing, pottery, and other crafts as well as to the men she thought embodied these skills. She cared least about the one thing she was best at, so when she stood up and sang she communicated a laid-back, good-humored ease her audiences found charming. Until the last few years of her life she had a soft, melting prettiness that was girlish and knowing, feline and earthy, all at once.

I lived with six different couples in four different towns, but it wasn't as bad as it sounds. The best of my six couples, Phil and Laura Grant, the Ozzie and Harriet of Naperville, Illinois,were almost saintly in their straightforward goodness. One other couple would have given them a run for their money if they hadn't taken in so many kids they wore themselves out, and two others were nice enough, in a this-is-our-house-and-these-are-the-rules way.

Before I went to Naperville, now and then I did go back to Cherry Street, where the Dunstans lived in their various old houses. Aunt Nettie and Uncle Clark took me in as though I were an extra piece of luggage Star had brought along. For a month, maybe six weeks, I shared a room with my mother, holding my breath and waiting for the next earthquake. After I moved in with the Grants, this pattern changed, and Star visited me in Naperville. She and I had come to an agreement: one of those deep agreements people don't need words to strike.

The core of our agreement, around which everything else wrapped itself, was that my mother loved me and I loved her. But no matter how much she loved me, Star didn't have it in her to stay in one place longer than a year or two. She was my mother, but she couldn't be a mother. Which meant that she couldn't help me deal with the besetting problem that frightened, distressed, or angered the foster parents I had before the Grants. The Grants accompanied me on a procession through doctors' offices, radiology departments, blood tests, urine tests, brain tests, I can't even remember them all.

Boiled down to essentials, it comes out this way: even though Star loved me, she could not care for me as well as the Grants could. On those days when Star came to Naperville, we put our arms around each other and we cried, but we both knew the deal. She usually showed up just after Christmas and almost always right at the start of summer, after I got out of school. But she never came on my birthdays, and she never sent me anything more than a card. Birthdays were when my problem came down on me, and my problem made her feel so rotten she didn't want to think about it.

I think I always understood this, but it didn't make conscious sense, a sense I could use, until two days after my fifteenth birthday. I came home from school to find waiting on the hall table an envelope addressed in my mother's back-slanted handwriting. It had been mailed from Peoria on my birthday, June 25. I took the envelope into my room, dropped it on my desk, put Gene Ammons's Groove Blues on the turntable, and, once the music began flowing into the air, opened the envelope and looked at the card my mother had sent me.

Balloons, streamers, and lighted candles floated above an idealized suburban house. Inside, beneath the printed Happy Birthday!, she had written the only message she ever put on one of her cards:

My beautiful boy--
I hope . . .
I hope . . .

Lots o love,

I knew that her wishes weren't for a happy birthday but an untroubled one, which would have been happiness enough. A half second after this insight opened the door, the first adult recognition of my life slammed into me, and I saw that my mother slighted my birthdays because she blamed herself for what befell me then. She thought I got it from her; she could not bear to think about my birthdays because they made her feel guilty, and guilt was the emotion free spirits like Star could least handle.

The sound of Gene Ammons playing "It Might as Well Be Spring" soared out of the speakers and passed straight into the center of my body. In khaki shorts and polo shirts, the Grants were monitoring the progress of herbs and vegetables in their garden. In the moment before they noticed me, I experienced the first in about a month of those What's wrong with this picture? moments, an animal awareness of my incongruity in this sweet suburban landscape. Danger; shame; isolation: exposure. Me and my shadow, there we were. Laura turned her head, and the bad feeling vanished even before her face warmed and somehow deepened, as if she knew everything going on inside me.

"Action Jackson," Phil said.

Laura glanced at the card, then back into my eyes. "Star could never forget your birthday. Can I see it?"

Both Grants liked my mother, though they liked her in different ways. When Star came to Naperville, Phil turned on an old-fashioned courtliness he thought was suave but Laura and I found hilarious, and Laura made room to talk by going out with her for an hour's shopping. I think she usually slipped her fifty or sixty bucks, too.

Laura smiled at the elegant white house and birthday-party froufrou on the front of the card and looked up at me. The second grown-up recognition of my life flew between us like a spark. Star had chosen this card for a reason. Laura did not evade the issue. "Wouldn't it be nice if we had dormer windows and a wraparound porch? If I lived in a place like that, I'd impress myself."

Phil moved closer, and she opened the card. Her eyebrows contracted as she read the message. " 'I hope . . .' "

"I hope for that, too," I said.

"Of course you do," she said, getting it.

Phil squeezed my shoulder, getting into executive mode. He was a products manager at 3M. "I don't care what these clowns say, it's a physical problem. Once we find the right doctor, we're going to lick that thing."

"These clowns" were my pediatrician, the Grant's GP, and the half dozen specialists who had failed to diagnose my condition. The specialists had concluded that my problem was "not of organic origin," another way of saying that it was all in my head.

"Do you think I got it from her?" I asked Laura.

"I don't think you got it from anybody," Laura said. "But if you're asking me does she feel terrible about it, sure she does."

"Star?" Phil said. "Star would have to be nuts to blame herself."

Laura was watching to see how much I understood. "Mothers want to take on anything that could hurt their kids, even the things they can't do anything about. What happens to you makes me feel terrible, and I can't even imagine what it does to Star. At least I get to see you every day. If I were your real mother, and my only chance to end world hunger for the next thousand years meant I had to go out of town on your birthday, I'd still feel awful about letting you down. I'd feel awful anyway, real mother or not."

"Like you weren't doing the right thing," I said.

"Your mother loves you so much that sometimes she can't stand not being Betty Crocker."

The idea of Star Dunstan being anything like Betty Crocker made me laugh out loud.

Laura said, "Doing the right thing doesn't always make you feel good, no matter what anybody says. Doing the right thing can hurt like the dickens! If you want my opinion, you have a great mom."

I would have laughed again, this time at her Girl Scout's notion of cursing, but my eyes stung and a thick obstruction filled my throat. A little while ago, I said that two days after my fifteenth birthday I came to understand my mother's feelings in a way I could use, and this is what I meant. I learned to ask questions about the things that scare you; that doing right could make you hurt too bad to think straight; that once you are you that's who you are, and you have to pay the price.

What People are Saying About This

Stephen King
Ghastly, hide your eyes horror; when Peter Straub turns on all jets, no one in the scream factory can equal him.

Meet the Author

Peter Straub was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and is the author of fourteen novels. He has won the British Fantasy Award, the Bram Stoker Award, the International Horror Guild Award, and two World Fantasy awards and was elected Grand Master at the 1998 World Horror Convention. His books have been translated into more than twenty foreign languages. He lives in New York City.

Brief Biography

New York City
Date of Birth:
March 2, 1943
Place of Birth:
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
B.A. in English, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1965; M.A., Columbia University, 1966

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Mr. X 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Isn't Peter Straub hailed as one of the top and most successful horror writers? Mr. X was extremely disappointing. It plodded along, very confusing at times. Since I had paid good money for this novel, I forced myself to complete the book even though I wasn't the least bit excited about it. I never really cared about the characters. No horror, just confusing and depressing. The only good thing about it is that it's FINALLY over. ~ DO ~
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is nothing like described - Horror? Laughable - the author cannot seem to engage the reader - instead opting for twist after twist after twist until you are completed bored and uncaring about the result. If you read this book read the first 20 pages then put it down - it is not worth investing your time in. I read to the end of this book and wished that i had gone with my gut reaction and just thrown it in the bin after reading the first chapter. If you like scary horror MR X is not it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This could be a great book but is it worth the effort...I had to reread much of it to stay with the very intricate and much too subtle plot. I am sure this is a good one, but a job instead of a joy.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As hard as I tried, I could not finish this book. Skipped around too much and left the reader uncaring about the characters.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While Straub obviously has skill as a writer, he delivers a very disappointing book with Mr. X. Filled with semi-interesting characters and an overused plot based upon H.P. Lovecraft lore, it is a very unsatisfying and empty read. If you're debating on reading this book, try one of the suggestions below.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Peter Straub has written excellent works of horror and mystery, notably 'Ghost Story' and 'Koko'. This latest effort drones on far too long and has very little horror and a lot of repetition. I don't like to give up on books once I start them but I had to struggle to finish this one.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A complete disappointment. I'm at page 408 and don't even think I'll finish it. Characters are somewhat interesting but the action plods along too slowly! The plot and premise spins so far out of reach that I don't even care what happens to these people.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the first book I have read by Peter Straub. At first I found it a difficult read..but as I continued I found it to be a fantastic read. Twist and turns with alot of suprises, right up to the last line of the book..(Boy that last line!)..This is a must read for any horror reader. Give a try! You wont regret it..
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RKKNYC More than 1 year ago
This is the first book by Peter Straub that I've read and it is great! I've already read 2 more.
TheBeanDude More than 1 year ago
Easily one of the best works of literature in this century! Straub weaves a story that will stun your senses and blow your mind. So intricate and intense, and rich in character and plot, and utterly inventive and ingenious! And masterly crafted! And the whole way Straub turns everything around and makes the reader not only question themselves but also question everything they just read is something that I am still impressed with to this day, and it's been about 6 years since I read this novel. And as a writer and author myself, I must say this is one of the most inspirational pieces of literature I've ever read as well. Go ahead, give it a try, if you dare. And, if you don't "get" it, well, pick it up and read it again! Highly, highly, HIGHLY recommended!! Thank you! :>)
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I like Mr X so much, I've read it a few times and appreciate that each time, it brought a new discovery. I may be beyond being scared by books, but I have no problem with being entertained and having my interest held by a good story with interesting characters. If you're looking for something a little less heavy handed and obvious Mr. X is for you.
Guest More than 1 year ago
mr.X is a pretty good book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found Mr. X to be a very enjoyable and easy read. I'm on my second time around and still can't get enough. Although I wouldn't agree with the reviews that it received, I wouldn't call it a horror book in any way. A fantasy right along the lines of HP Lovecraft, this book will keep the pages turning and your light on all night reading it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Not an easy read, but pretty good if you can stick it out. Characters were good (and some pretty funny). Not as scary as some reviewers have suggested, but interesting all the same.