The incantatory and deceptive powers of storytelling have always been central to Peter Straub's novels. From the quartet of aging, dissembling raconteurs in Ghost Story (1979) to the lurid pageantry and masques of Shadowland (1980), Straub artfully layers and arranges smaller stories to construct what might be called a greater dread, and his odd and excellent new volume, A Dark Matter, furthers such narrative invention.
The book follows the efforts of a Straub-like horror novelist named Lee Harwell to piece together what really happened decades earlier when four of his childhood friends (one of whom is now his wife) followed an itinerant mystic into a field to perform a mysterious ritual that left one of them "torn apart by enormous teeth" and the survivors forever scarred. His wife (also named Lee; nicknamed the Eel) has long refused to speak about it, and as he interviews his old friends one by one, Harwell finds himself unearthing not only the story of the ritual but also the secrets of his marriage.
The framing device of the successful novelist digging into some formative element of his past is not a new one for Straub, but A Dark Matter marks the first time he's employed a Rashomon structure, with the same event being recounted by multiple witnesses, each of whom tells a meaningfully different story. The book's clever twist is that the witnesses don't merely have conflicting interpretations—they really did see different things that night, a conceit that's made plausible by the supernatural nature of the event. While one participant stumbled into scenes of horror that echo the Vietnam imagery from Straub's own Koko (1988)—towers of dead babies with "bruised, crusted, dead-white skin," their bodies bent in two "like tacos"—another was attacked by and absorbed into a planet made of sentences. As Straub describes the vision, "this sphere was not one thing, but was instead made of many, many words and sentences: hot words, boiling sentences . . . thrashing and coiling like monstrous, endless, interconnected snakes." Straub gets great literary mileage from this unfortunate fellow, who spent decades in a mental institution, speaking mostly in sentences memorized from Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.
Each witness's experience of the disastrous ritual, considered in light of the previous ones, illuminates fresh aspects of a mystery we are not meant to understand fully. The Eel gives the most definitive, and audaciously strange, account of that terrible night. By the end of her tale, we realize with surprise and admiration that Straub has taken what seemed an experiment in the occult and turned it into something more holistic—a story about the nature of the world and the hidden hands that turn it.