I’m a total newcomer to Peter Straub. The only one of his works I know is the film version of Ghost Story. But I’ve been dimly aware of his significance to the genre, his status as a second-only to Stephen King, for some time. So, desperately in need of some new reading material, I conned a couple of friends into driving me over to a local mega book store (home for the holidays, and no car, alas), and picked up two. I finished the first, a novella entitled A Special Pace: The Heart of a Dark Matter, in a few hours. Though I was up until 3 am finishing it, I wouldn’t say it was great. More on that in a minute.
This short tale, it turns out, is something of a prequel to the other Straub book I bought, A Dark Matter. The novella details the development of a killer, Keith Hayward, who is instructed in his bloody work by his 1950’s-cool, fedora-wearing, gangster-ish Uncle Till. The cover blurbs describe it as a meditation on evil, or something to that effect. But it’s not nearly as deep, nor complex, as those words suggest. At the end of the day, it is a study not of evil in any philosophical sense, but of the grotesque, of uncomfortable impulses and unlikely motivations (which, admittedly, must sometimes exist in real life, or there would be no serial killers). Like my dim memory of an unfinished Stephen King novel–and a lot of other paperback horror, following King’s lead–it features unnecessarily grim, visceral descriptions of quotidian things in a boring attempt to elicit a sense of uneasiness, to defamiliarize the familiar, and all the other things the genre has become known for and consequently doesn’t pull off all that well any more.
To clarify, the novella, given that it deals with the training of a serial killer, is surprisingly (and thankfully) free of gore. Straub explains and describes without stooping to photographic detail, which I appreciate (as I’ve said before, subtlety is key). The parts that I’m calling visceral have less to do with the killing (which, in some ways, is secondary) than with the descriptions of mundane things. The narration is grimy, vaguely unpleasant. It fits the subject matter, I suppose, but it is too secure in itself, too familiar as a genre convention, to really work in the way I think Straub intended.
On its own, A Special Place is nothing special at all. I wouldn’t give it a second thought–except in the sense of a few particularly unpleasant scenes that will probably stay with me for a while–if not for its relation to the larger story of A Dark Matter. I’m only about 50 pages into the latter, but already it seems entirely different. The narrative voice is completely unlike that of the novella: the tone is sarcastic and slightly tragic, where the novella is queasy and unpleasant. Because of this difference, and because I’m a sucker for tie-ins of any kind, I’ll withhold final judgement on the overall story until I’ve finished the novel. But taken as a standalone work, A Special Place disappoints.