IN THE NIGHT ROOM
By Peter Straub
Random House. 330 pp. $21.95
Some of Peter Straub's contemporaries in popular fiction have responded to the aging of their careers by expanding the universes (and increasing the page counts) of their novels. Stephen King has just written the last volume of his sprawling "Dark Tower" series. Patricia Cornwell has immersed her crime-solving Dr. Kay Scarpetta in the shadowy and confounding workings of a secret intelligence agency called the Last Precinct. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Straub seems to have zeroed in on the very core of what drives his work: the persistence of grief and the sense of consuming dread that accompanies it.
"In the Night Room" is the second of two slender and razor-sharp novels of supernatural suspense that feature Timothy Underhill, a successful novelist haunted by the murder of his beloved nephew. (The character's blatant similarities to his creator are referenced with sly humor. Like Underhill, Straub faced death at a very young age and is often recognized primarily for his collaborations with a bigger name in the horror genre, King, with whom he wrote "The Talisman" and "Black House.")
After 16 novels, some of them mammoth, Straub has mastered the art of telling tales of epic horror in the kind of measured voices typically found in the finest detective fiction. If Lew Archer were ever to face off against Grendel's mother, Straub would be one of the few writers around who could do the scene justice. This artful juxtaposition has earned Straub the somewhat awkward title of the thinking man's horror-writer -- awkward because it implies that he simply shoehorns supposedly literary themes into stories rigid with genre convention. Not so with "In the Night Room," where the tale of a writer's reckoning with the psychic consequences of his work is seamlessly interwoven with a startling vision of the afterlife, featuring vengeful ghosts and a disdainful leather-clad angel charged with cleansing the earth of human failures.
In the novel's riveting and breathlessly paced opening chapters, we learn that "Tim Underhill was like a kind of Scheherazade, telling stories to save his life. Fiction gave him entry into the worst and darkest places of his life, and that entry put the pain and fear and anger right in his own hands, where he could transform them into pleasure." So it's no surprise that Underhill has recently penned a novel inspired by the abduction and murder of his nephew, a novel in which the boy travels into a safe alternate universe, accompanied by the loving ghost of another young victim of violence Underhill once knew. But before Underhill can start another day's work on his new project, cryptic and anonymous e-mail messages start to fill his in-box; "re member," reads one; "hard death hard," reads another.
Then comes a visit from a seemingly disturbed fan who identifies himself as Jasper Kohle and asks Underhill to sign 20 copies of a novel not yet published. Kohle responds to Underhill's shock with a disarming statement about the writing process. "Authors think every copy of a book is the same, but they're not. Every time a book goes through the presses, two, three, copies of the real book come out. That's the one you wanted to write when you started out, with everything perfect, no mistakes, nothing dumb, and all the dialogue and the details exactly right." When Underhill expresses skepticism, his admirer becomes decidedly less complimentary: "You guys are all the same. Ninety percent of the time, you're just making things up. You act like a bunch of lazy, irresponsible gods. It wouldn't be so bad if you weren't basically deaf and blind, too." When the identity of this disturbed fan is finally revealed, it becomes clear that Underhill's most recent and deeply personal novel, with its connections to actual crimes, has caused a grave disturbance in the afterlife that will bring him into direct conflict with the spectral visitors who have been taunting him.
Meanwhile, in a wealthy New Jersey suburb, Willy Patrick, another successful writer haunted by a violent death, finds herself suffering from inexplicable blackouts, a growing suspicion of her wealthy and domineering husband and an absolute conviction that the ghost of her murdered daughter is hiding in an abandoned warehouse. The very chapters that chronicle these disturbances seem to be suffering from the same disturbances themselves; the tense shifts, portions of dialogue lose their punctuation, a strange omniscient narrator is introduced only to be discarded. But as Willy moves towards her inevitable and revelatory meeting with Underhill, what at first reads like a disjointed subplot locks beautifully into place, and its apparent postmodern gimmickry is revealed to be a subtly executed component of the novel's strong governing mythology.
Somewhere around the hundredth page, "In the Night Room" becomes the kind of fast-paced, deftly plotted novel that defies critical synopsis, lest the reader's experience of it be spoiled. What follows is a riveting and elegiac journey, as Underhill and Willy travel to visit the scenes of those crimes that served as the source material for his novel, which has evoked the wrath of a vengeful spirit whose brief, bone-chilling appearances are rendered vividly and precisely. In the process, Straub takes readers to a place where fact and fiction are blended by flows of grief. The result is not only a powerful and arresting foray into the dark fantastic, but also a novel that manages to provide a deeply personal glimpse into its author's psyche without sacrificing narrative and suspense.