A Dark Matter

Peter Straub
A Dark Matter Cover

A Dark Matter


A Dark Matter overtaxed my supernatural toleration threshold. You might ask why I would read a Peter Straub novel if I even had such as thing as a supernatural toleration threshold, but all I had read from Straub before was a couple of shorter pieces. One of these had no supernatural element to it at all, and the other was so deeply weird on so many levels that whatever about it involved the supernatural was simply part of a world Straub made convincing and intensely unpleasant. The strongest element of A Dark Matter, that element that kept me turning its 500 plus pages, was Straub's narrator's exploration of how his characters' encounter with an occult guru during their teenage years shaped their lives from that initial encounter in the 1960's into their very different middle-aged lives. One young man met a horrible and bloody death that day in the agronomy field operated by the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Another disappeared, possibly into another dimension although he may have also have been sighted panhandling since then. One young man has spent his life in a mental institution, speaking only in quotes from Nathaniel Hawthorne or with a vocabulary drawn from a dictionary of obscure words. Two have served prison sentences. One young woman retreated to the safety of her parents' affluence and began climbing the social ladder of marriage and divorce into the world of right-wing politics. The other teenaged girl who was there that day, and the character at the heart of the novel, married the novel's narrator, her boyfriend at the time who stayed clear of the occult goings on. That man, Lee Harwell, has become a successful novelist. His wife, also named Lee but known to her high-school friends as the Eel, lost her sight in her thirties and is now an active advocate for the blind.

Harwell's agent and his publisher have suggested it is time he try his hand at some nonfiction, and the story that comes to mind involves his still unresolved questions about his friends' involvement, almost fifty years before, with the charismatic Terrence Mallon. (There is also a plot involving a serial killer active in the poor side of Madison, Wisconsin, where Lee and his friends lived. Although Straub ties this thread into his main plot, for me it strained an already overstuffed narrative.) No sooner does Harwell begin his investigation than these now aging friends begin to reappear in his life. Straub's novel successfully balances Harwell's reflections on his own past, his reactions to these friends to whom he no longer feels any real connection, and the stories they have to tell about that life-altering afternoon in the field.

But about that afternoon in the field.

Mallon like any occult guru is always on the lookout for acolytes and potential sex partners. These naïve high school kids from the wrong side of town, eager to enter what they perceive as the sophisticated world of college-aged intellectuals and party animals, are made to order for the line of hogwash he lays down. And judging from the bits we hear, it all sounds like hippy hogwash. Harwell learns from one of the participants that Mallon studied and followed, although in a flawed way, the teachings of the Renaissance mage, Cornelius Agrippa. The ritual he conducts with his young followers summons beings Agrippa acknowledged as powerful occult beings. This is where the story lost me. Straub's descriptions here become hackneyed stage performance, a lame ritual that produces results that are neither convincing nor compelling. We have to accept them as real and not just the result of the overheated atmosphere he has created among some impressionable youth. They stand at the center of Straub's novel but are its weakest element.

Straub fans seem to love A Dark Matter. I was impressed by how Straub organized his narrative, although at times the writing got lazy and needed tighter editing. But it was not the best introduction to his novels I could have chosen.