Peter Straub, A Dark Matter

Such promise. A guru, a fully tuned-in Aquarian, leads a pack of young cheeseheads past a riot into a meadow to perform a ritual summoning. As a result, one young lady becomes an esoteric Straussian without the eyestrain, another has her eyes strained, one becomes a poststructuralist against his will, an ambitious young man is mugged by the quotidian while his courtier gets lost, one has architectural musings, and the other, the one who most wants to be the guru, like his guru sees only the cynocephalic guardians who’ve been presiding over the affair. Some of what they see is zodiacal—there’s an interlude with Agrippa a bit later—some merely demoniacal.

The young boyfriend of the woman who becomes a skylark (and eventually goes blind) becomes himself a writer and naturally wants to find out about what happened in that meadow. (He’s already written a horror novel which used the dogheads as inspiration, and is very successful, having been on the cover of Time and living in Chicago.) He wasn’t there, himself. Spencer Mallon, the guru, more-or-less disappears from the novel, despite being by several orders of magnitude the character of the most potential interest. We have very little of the chorus hymeneal between the writer and his lark, whom he’s married and who waits until the very last to reveal her story. We hear the other stories, but the competing perspectives offer very little in the way of meaningful difference and pantextualist Hootie, who can only speak in quotations, is essentially given up on as a conceit. This is, in short, a muddled book.

Straub tends to indulge in sensationalistic violence. The plot with the Hayward serial killers, for example, is largely meaningless, unless it is to provide some type of low-grade moral speculation about the reason for evil in the world. Straub seems to be interested in the idea that psychopaths may not regard other human beings as living creatures with minds and preferences of their own and that thus pure evil is the perspective that nothing exists except for its use-value, that nothing can mean other than what it is. (This is the wisdom I described as “esoteric Straussian” above. The other woman is married to a senator now.) There’s one hallucinatory scene which seems to try to explore this idea, and the conversation that Lee Truax (the skylark) has with a demon at the end of her meadowsong attempts to prop up this jerrybuilt theodicy.

I would like to credit Straub with the capacity for moral satire. The near-opulence of the party at the end after they’ve heard Truax’s account suggests at least the possibility that this is yet another group of youthful dissidents (one of them sees dead soldiers marching with the students in the riot) who’ve grown fat and comfortable, and they are directly feasting on the proceeds of one of their party’s speculations in the libidinal economy. Meanwhile, the lean, hungry, and botox’d absent member is grooming herself for real power (she was from Arkansas, after all.) But I think this type of reading would have to very much work at the level of the political unconscious. Even as a child, when I read Ghost Story, I knew that a scene where someone would care one way or the other about the idea that Crane wrote a ghost story of his own showed that Straub’s grasp of the fullness of the world was not sure.

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