“A Dark Matter,” and the problem with genre (again)

This is a tough one, because, once again, there is some mislabeling involved. I’ve given what I think is a fair definition of horror–particularly supernatural horror–as a starting point. This is just my opinion, mind. Genres are flexible, etc. etc. But I think it’s fair to say that if you invoke the concept of horror in your naming conventions, it’s not unreasonable to expect that a work thusly labeled should elicit that particular sensation.

In my usage, the primary emotion connoted by the word “horror” is fear, and the ability to engender fear in the audience is one of the main criteria by which I judge a given work within that genre. To be fair, horror can entail other emotional responses beyond fear–I know because Webster says so. So, in its broadest sense, the horror genre is one which has as a major goal the creation of a sense of fear, disgust, or just general unpleasantness (could it be any more vague, Webster?).

The thing is, Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter does none of these things. Never, through the entire 588 pages, did I feel even the slightest tingling of dread. I didn’t really feel disgust, either, although there were a few events described which could conceivably fall under the category of “disgusting.”

Before I go on, I should say that this does not mean this is a bad book. On the contrary, I quite enjoyed it. But no matter how I stretch the definition, I just can’t see how this book is horror.

Straub deserves some recognition for the complex characters and interconnected storylines he constructs. I recently reviewed the “prequel” short story, which on its own wasn’t so great. Reading A Dark Matter, the short prequel took on a new significance, and became, in retrospect, better by a few degrees–not many, mind, but enough that I don’t regret having read it. The former story, which involves the descent of young Keith Hayward into murderous depravity, isn’t necessary for an appreciation or understanding of the novel; but it’s gratifying to get a little more detail on the character’s history, since Hayward plays a fairly important role in the latter.

Most of the story happened, as it were, in the past; the novel’s present time consists primarily of the narrator rounding up people involved in a particular event forty years prior and dragging out their versions of the story. The event in question was a ritual, led by a new-age guru named Spencer Mallon; the participants were a handful of high school and college kids, including the narrator’s girlfriend (and eventual wife) and their closest friends. The ritual, if it can be called that, resulted in the death of one kid, the disappearance of another, and various shades of craziness or other afflictions for the rest. It was the defining moment in the lives of the survivors, and the novel’s narrator, Lee, is determined to find out what happened.

Effectively, Lee is compiling oral histories of a singular event in which his closest friends participated, but from which he was, by his own choice, excluded. The narration alternates between the slow-moving present-time action of Lee traveling around and reconnecting with his old friends, and their paraphrased stories. Some might find this approach awkward or even boring, a bit like using passive-voice constructions too frequently. But Straub’s style, like the passive voice, works in certain situations. It’s satisfying to read the various character’s accounts of the strange ritual in much the same way that documentary evidence and found footage are (or can be) satisfyingly participatory elements in “true” (i.e., scary) horror.

There are some interesting poetic flourishes and metatextual elements that help to make up for the utter lack of scares. Lee is an author, and the literary process is a secondary theme of the book. For example, in one of the few horrific (but somehow not at all frightening) scenes in the book, Straub writes (spoilers, sort of),

He could never describe the jumble of contradictions that followed. The moment the boiling sentence-sun struck him, he was absorbed into its substance and disappeared from this realm. He slipped out of his body, which was consumed, and threaded into a comforting subject-verb-object sequence; thence into a concatenation of independent clauses that scattered him amongst a hive of semicolons. (398)

I like this, even as I recognize that it’s a bit hackneyed. The descriptions of the ritual–when they finally come–are by far the most interesting parts of the book. Elsewhere, describing the same event from another character’s perspective, Straub says (more spoilers, sort of),

These faceless kings and queens, wilting girls, floating shirts, giant ranting warriors, and the rest, these camels and dragons and curious pigs, failed to make sense because they were utterly incapable of logic or coherence. Rationality had no place in their world. They  could not make sense; sense wasn’t in them. Meaning had come late to the world, and they had no use for it. (532)

Straub waxes poetic at times, and these passages–when he speaks from the perspective of one of the secondary characters, filtered through that of the narrator Lee–are some of the best. When Lee is speaking as himself, describing his own experiences in the novel’s present, that’s when things start to drag. Lee is getting older–in his late fifties in the novel’s present–and the book is essentially the combined recollections of Lee and his high school buddies, peppered with a lot of present-day drama which is mostly resolved through the very act of recollecting. Nostalgic reminiscences are typically only entertaining for the person to whom they belong, and Lee et al’s struggle to piece together that singular 40-year-old event is, not surprisingly, sometimes very dull.

What all of this says about Straub himself, I don’t know–but my sense is that this novel has a lot of Straub in it.

Overall, I liked this book–though it is resoundingly not horror, at least not if you take the generation of fear as the goal and irreducible heart of that genre. It is not perfect, and it is less profound perhaps than it aspires to be; but it is an interesting, engaging read, which raises compelling questions about everyday relationships and the assumptions upon which they depend (including our relationship with the reality we believe ourselves to inhabit). As with the short A Special Place, I read this one into the small hours. If page-turner-ness is any criterion, then it was a success. 86/100.

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