Writing a horror novel that genuinely chills is difficult, to say the least. Too often, an over-reliance on surprise or extremes of violence mask an absence of genuine peril or lack of emotional investment in the characters.
Harder still is writing an effective horror novel in which the main events occur in the past: It is well nigh impossible to evoke a sense of genuine peril when the outcome of the events in question is already a matter of historical record. Stephen King achieved this masterfully in his magnum opus It, although the sense of peril in the childrens' storyline in that novel was bolstered somewhat by the simultaneous adult storyline featuring the same characters.
With his new novel A Dark Matter, New York writer Peter Straub manages a similar feat wholly without a net. The horrific components of A Dark Matter occur several decades prior to the main storyline, which is set in the lingering aftermath of events that the novel's main character struggles to understand. It's not just an impressive accomplishment: A Dark Matter is a powerful, original and utterly engrossing novel about the palpability of evil and its costs.
A Dark Matter centers on events in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1966. A group of high-school friends fall under the thrall of Spencer Mallon, a drifter, conman and purported guru of the sort who would become familiar as the 1960s wore on. With Mallon and several other acolytes, the four friends -- Dilly Olson, Jason "Boats" Boatman, Hootie Bly and Lee "The Eel" Truax -- participate in a secret ritual that leaves one participant dead and the lives of everyone else fundamentally changed, if not outright shattered.
Several decades later, Lee Harwell, The Eel's high-school boyfriend and now her husband, is a successful writer. He alone of the group of friends avoided Mallon's charm, and as a result has spent his adult life on the outside of that circle. His wife refuses to discuss it, and he has no idea of the events that transpired in the meadow on that fateful night. Driven by a lifetime of curiosity, he begins to explore what happened, compiling a version of the events that is as terrifying for what it portended as for what actually transpired.
A Dark Matter is told largely in reminiscences, monologues and testimonies that gradually coalesce into a singular, unbelievable narrative of forces just outside our own world. As Harwell reconnects with and interviews his former friends, their characters come vividly into focus. Hootie, for example, has spent decades in a mental institution and speaks only in quotations from books he has read (notably The Scarlet Letter and a bizarre dictionary of unknown and strange words), while Dilly, just released from prison, gradually adjusts into mainstream life.
While the horror of 1966 is the core subject of A Dark Matter and provides most of the novel's chills, the later events in the lives of those participants amplify the horror and give the fantastic a fundamentally human face. When The Eel finally provides her testimony, which brings the fractured narratives of the ritual night together, the events have the added significance of the reader's intimate knowledge of the players' lives, before and after. This increases the horror and simultaneously allows for a sense of hope, moments of sacrifice and beauty where we least expect them. It's a brilliantly realized effect in the closing pages of a novel that is nothing less than stunning.
Robert J. Wiersema's latest book is The World More Full of Weeping.