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This review is from: A Dark Matter (Paperback)
When I received by Real Readers a book to review that was written by Peter Straub, I got excited for I had already read and enjoyed his two works with Stephen King, namely the 'Black House' and the 'Talisman' (although I never quite understood how it is possible to co-author a fictional story). Unfortunately, the book under review, entitled 'A Dark Matter', did not live up to my expectations.
"Terrifying...impossible to put down" writes Stephen King; "A new horror epic" states Sunday Express; boring and pointless, I say. I am an avid reader who loves crime and horror stories, but this book is neither. It is a rather weak, badly planned social drama, that is not sure what it wants to be: a horror/crime/drama/serial killer story? In the end, it becomes a mismatch of everything. There is a supernatural element indeed, which has cleverly been hyped by the marketing team and the media, but the only terrifying thing in this book is how slow and pointless it is, to the point of mental torture for the reader who tries to finish it.
The premise sounds interesting and if developed in a different way it could have been a success: in the 1960s a charming hippie 'guru' type called Spencer Mallon, with an interest in ancient languages and the occult, arrives in an American town and gets the devotion of three college kids and a group of four teenagers. His vision is to organise some kind of a ritual in a local meadow, which however goes terribly wrong. As a result, one kid disappears and another is found dismembered. The surviving kids never reveal many details and they just seem to go on with their lives, but each one of them was traumatised by the event in a different way. Forty years later, writer Lee Harwell, once a teenager who escaped Mallon's charm and did not take part in any of the events, tries to finally find out what happened back then and why it damaged his friends so much. He tries to talk to them and persuade them to open up, and this becomes the main theme of the book.
Supposedly, main character Lee acquired a renewed interest in the events in the meadow when his other book projects did not go very well with his publisher, and this must reflect Straub's situation in real life. According to Wikipedia, he published an earlier, longer draft of 'A Dark Matter' in a limited edition under the title 'The Skylark'. It seems to the reader that 'A Dark Matter' is the publisher's effort to save the story by editing it, but the editing was not extensive enough or successful second time round either. Although the first person narrator is Lee, the story gets told by the point of view of his friends as well, but there are numerous repetitions and incoherent ramblings that certainly don't create "brilliant psychological portraits". I still believe that Stephen King has a unique unsurpassed charisma in developing well-rounded characters in his tales. The characters here are not well-developed; we only get a glimpse of their young selves and then a glimpse of their middle-aged ones and I did not feel connected to any of them. We never find out what happened to Mallon either. His character remains very one-dimensional and then disappears from the story.
The first 40 pages are quite confusing, and Straub uses pretentious language and an inconsistent narrative style throughout the book. In some parts the language is simple and the narration flows, yet in other parts the language gets twisted and the narration confusing as he draws quotes from the American 19th century novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne that mean nothing to the non-American reader not familiar with his work. The pace of the book is uneven, with loads of unnecessary padding. As the story goes on, Straub releases very few new information. In reality, the story progresses in the last 60 pages and the reader can't help but feeling that this could be a short 100 page novella instead of a struggling 439 page novel. When the last character finally gives a more complete narration regarding what happened in the meadow all those years ago and why it was traumatic, many parts seem silly and certainly not horrifying as expected. How critics can compare this failure to Akira Kurosawa 's masterpiece 'Rashomon', at least according to Amazon US, escapes me and I consider it an insult to the Japanese film master.
This book was a most boring and pointless read and I cannot recommend it to any horror story fan. It may be more suitable for those who like slow-paced dramas with a slight supernatural hint.
Peter Straub is an American writer whose horror fiction has apparently received many prestigious awards. How did he get it so wrong here?
Many thanks to Real Readers for providing a review copy.