I’m a huge fan of horror author Peter Straub. Between Straub and Stephen King, I think Straub is the superior writer. King has the popularity, but Straub . . . Ah, Straub has the supreme intellect and writing skill. What Stephen King has going for him, though, is his imagination and his storytelling ability, which are consistently topnotch. When his imagination is running on all eight cylinders, he’s hard to match. But Straub is no slouch in that department either, and at his best, even the so-called king of horror can’t touch him.
Such is the case with A Dark Matter, which may just be his best novel of the twenty-first century thus far (I haven’t yet read In the Night Room, so I can’t quite make that leap yet). In the late eighties and throughout the nineties, Straub wrote mostly pitch black mystery novels, perhaps tinged with the supernatural but not really what I would classify as proper horror. Not that humanity itself can’t be thoroughly horrific. Just read Koko, for example, where a terrible act by a group of soldiers during the Viet Nam war is just icing on the cake in the formation of a human monster’s persona. The deeper you dig into the serial killer’s life, the more fucked up mankind as a whole seems to grow, and one can almost understand why he does what he does.
With 2001’s Black House (co-authored with Stephen King), Straub returned to his first love: the dark fantastic. It was a stunning novel to be sure, but given that it takes place firmly in King’s territory, I’m hesitant to mark it out as Straub’s best modern horror novel. Lost Boy, Lost Girl was likewise excellent. Hell, I’m not sure Straub is even capable of writing an outright bad novel. That’s not something you can say of King, who penned the plodding aliens-are-among-us lump that was The Tommyknockers, which I read as a teenager right after reading and thoroughly enjoying The Stand–man, talk about plunging from the heavens straight into the abyss! Anyway, with A Dark Matter, Straub not only returned to form, he pretty much knocked it out of the park.
The story revolves around a group of high schoolers who fall under the spell of Spencer Mallon, one of those flaky, self-styled New Age gurus during the sixties, a middle-aged white guy with a pretty face and a lot of silly ideas about spirituality. Picture Matthew McConaughey as a youth-oriented professorial type and you won’t be far off the mark. Of course, he uses the kids for his own ends, as such people inevitably do: he soaks in the adulation of the boys, sexes up the girls, and sponges off whoever he can whilst traveling around America, never actually working or contributing much to society. The era of the mid-sixties to the early seventies was probably the heyday for these people, as young hippies embraced them like few others would.
As Mallon’s group expands to include one of his many romantic flings and a couple of sociopathic frat boys (one of them a serial killer in the making), plans for a kind of evening seance in the local university’s agronomy meadows take shape, and on the night of the event itself all hell seems to have been literally unleashed. One of the kids winds up dead, another disappears without a trace, and all of them are seriously messed up for years to come, each in their own way. Years later, the husband of one of the high school students who accompanied Mallon that night tries to piece together what actually happened, interviewing the survivors, the ones he can find anyway. But each of them seems to have completely different stories, leading to a Rashomon-like narrative structure where the survivors all give their accounts of that night. Slowly the truth begins to take shape, until by the end of the book you get a pretty good idea of how the evening played out.
What you never get is an exact explanation of why things happened the way they did. And here is where Straub’s true genius lies: he conveys the opaque nature of the beyond better than any horror writer I know. There is ultimately little rhyme or reason to Straub’s supernatural realms and thus no comfort to be had in notions of an eternal utopian afterlife or anything of the sort. He does rely on some specifically Western concepts of demons here and there, but the reader gets the sense that these are more a result of people raised in a Christian society trying to make sense of what they encounter rather than an explanation of what things are really like beyond the grave. In fact, the book goes out of its way to suggest that the supernatural is an impenetrable mystery that forever lies beyond the ability of our little monkey brains to decipher.
And the fact that the experiences of each person involved are wildly different taps into what I consider to be one of the central elements of good horror: it is ultimately an experience of the individual in isolation, which is to say, true horror is about being alone. One need not be actually physically alone to know what it’s about either, as this story perfectly exemplifies. Psychological isolation is every bit as terrible, if not more terrible, than physical isolation during those moments. Indeed, horror seems to be an inherently isolating experience. Witness the paranoia and mistrust that springs up among the closely knit group of researchers in the John Carpenter film The Thing. They are already isolated from the rest of humanity in their Antarctic station; when the alien begins to attack them, their isolation becomes complete as these scientists–ordinarily a highly rational bunch–start to turn on each other, a potentially deadly state-of-mind to fall into in a hostile climate like Antarctica, even without a shapeshifting alien hunting you.
That Straub understands this fact of human nature better than the overly optimistic King does already positions him a few notches higher than his more popular contemporary in my book. King himself is at his most successful when he follows that path too, as he did in It. After their childhood encounter with It/Pennywise, the kids all basically split up and go their separate ways, choosing to isolate themselves from each other. Straub facilitates the same sort of separation here, and it’s perfectly understandable. After all, who is going to remind you the most of a terrible and traumatic event than the people who were right there with you when shit got real?
Of course, King had his young buddies come together later to take on and defeat It. Nothing like that happens in Straub’s book. The monsters and demons are still there, waiting just beyond the membrane of our reality, watching for a slip in the boundary so that they might come in and wreak havoc here. They do not behave in any rational way, nor do they exist to punish us for our transgressions–it’s just that they take great pleasure in doing so when afforded the opportunity. Sure, there are beings whose job is to protect that membrane and keep the worlds properly divided, but they aren’t our friends. Far from it. And God? Basically the ultimate mindfuck, not a being that listens to our prayers or pays much attention to us either way. God is incomprehensible and that is all we can ever know about the All-Mighty, whether in this world or the next. Not a very pleasant thought to dwell on, but there you have it.
And when Mallon’s followers do come together at the end, it is merely to heal. They’re more like attendees of an AA meeting than a bunch of badasses ready to take on Big Evil–let’s call them SHH: Survivors of Horror & Hell. It’s a lifelong commitment. You never really get over something like that, and maybe you’re only emotionally strong enough to tell your story once, but maybe you can at least take a little comfort in knowing others were there and experienced . . . er, something similar what you did. That’s the best you’re going to get in Straub’s universe, and that’s the stuff good horror fiction is made from.