Monday, December 13, 2010

(REVIEWTIME) A Special Place: The Heart of a Dark Matter

Just finished "A Special Place", a dark and engrossing novel by Peter Straub. Most seem to know Straub as "that guy who writes with Stephen King", but to me he has always met more. My interest in horror fiction waned in high school and I became enticed by the nerdy, literary paths paved by authors like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem. Straub's bizarre, wild-eyed "Floating Dragon" dragged me back into the genre.

But therein lies the oddest aspect of Straub's career--for someone dubbed an "horror" writer by New York publishers and critics, he rarely delivers on the thrill-a-page promise of his book's blurbs and back matter. His stories brood and contemplate, and the scares are derived from the flaws and fiendish impluses of humanity, as opposed to more obvious supernatural threats.

Such is the case in "A Special Place". The novella, set in the late fifties and early sixties, introduces us to Keith Hayward, a young man who is obsessed and captivated by his uncle Tillman (nicknamed "Till"). A bond forms between the two for one simple reason: they both have an interest in extinguishing life. As Till's continued presence around Keith's home draws police attention, Keith's fascination with murder only deepens. The "special place" is both metaphorical (Till urges Keith to hide his dark interest from others) and literal (Keith eventually has to find a secluded area in which to act on his bloody instincts.)

Straub is a master at conveying emotion, and in this novella he pulls off something impressive; he makes us feel at least some compassion for murderers. Till is the envy of his family, a classy man who lives large and loves Hitchcock films. And Keith is a boy who, above all, wants to impress and protect his uncle. "A Special Place" is my favorite type of novella because it uses every page to explore its characters. The entire drive of the story is one child's attempts to realize their full potential and become true to themselves, like a crazed, Bizarro world Lifetime movie.