Book review: 'A Dark Matter' by Peter Straub

By Maureen Corrigan
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, February 8, 2010


By Peter Straub

Doubleday. 397 pp. $26.95

It's those blasted 1960s again.

We all know that decade is to blame for prying open the safety box and allowing sex, drugs and rock-and-roll to get loose. But in his latest supernatural thriller, "A Dark Matter," Peter Straub holds the 1960s responsible for far, far worse. Straub blames a bunch of arrogant, promiscuous hippies and their New Age mumbo jumbo for tearing down the walls of hell itself. At last! A cultural interpretation of the 1960s that both Rush Limbaugh and the late Jim Morrison would applaud.

The supernatural incident at the center of "A Dark Matter" unfolds as follows: One evening in 1966 in Madison, Wis., a group of young people -- some high school kids, some college students -- follow their guru into a meadow to perform a forbidden ritual. The leader, Spencer Mallon, is one of those older, charismatic guys who used to lurk, uncredentialed, on the fringes of college campuses. (Now, they simply troll the Internet.) Mallon spouts lines from Norman O. Brown's "Love's Body" and the "Tibetan Book of the Dead," beds the best-looking girls and promises his disciples an authentic experience of "ancient magic." Eight people go into the meadow that night; only six come out alive. One young man's grotesquely munched-up corpse is discovered in the grass; another guy simply evaporates into the Beyond. The police investigate but, as always, are helpless in the face of forces beyond human understanding. Mallon rambles on down the road, leaving the rest of the group to deal with the wreckage of their lives.

Those are the happenings that our hero, a writer named Lee Harwell, is mulling over as "A Dark Matter" begins. Harwell's interest is personal. Back in 1966, he was a skeptic and, though part of the crowd that congregated around Mallon, wanted nothing to do with the slick sage. The woman who became Harwell's wife was one of the meadow-trekkers, but even though she was blinded as a consequence, she has refused throughout their long marriage to speak of that night. Indeed, none of his former friends has ever said "Boo!" to Harwell about the event. Of his strange exclusion, he says: "I had missed the boat, definitively, and so had been spared the mysterious experience that came to define their lives. There was a magic circle and I stood beyond its periphery."

Motivated in part by a desperate desire to overcome writer's block and, perhaps, publish a book based on the event, he decides to investigate by reconnecting with the far-flung survivors of Mallon's mysterious ritual. He wants to hear each of their separate accounts of that night. And so that event is repeated, reinterpreted and revisited throughout the novel.

And that's the big problem: The central story seems too fright-fest-boilerplate to be worthy of such extended rumination. Doesn't the mystic-on-the-make always lose control of the black magic he's unleashed? Isn't it always a bad idea to sign up for one of these Outward Bound Adventures into Another Dimension? Doesn't someone always lose her mind or soul or life? In offering each of the aging student survivors a separate turn at recalling that night's horror, Straub seems to be trying to one-up his own rather mundane story line.

Most of Mallon's former disciples seem unlikely to have amounted to much, anyway -- even without the excuse of a psyche-wounding encounter with the demonic realm. The exception to this rather listless lineup of graying cult followers is Hootie Bly, a decades-long resident of a hospital psychiatric ward who speaks only in literary quotations, many from "The Scarlet Letter." What a pleasure it is to hear Hootie nimbly remix the Western canon while all else in this paranoid universe of ghouls, demon dogs, severed limbs and suction chambers into the void makes little or no sense. By the end of "A Dark Matter," it hardly matters anymore whether the wan mystery of What Happened in the Meadow That Night has been solved. But Hootie's well-read fool is a voice of sanity amid all this supernatural silliness.

Corrigan, the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches a course on detective fiction at Georgetown University.

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