HOUSES WITHOUT DOORS

By Peter Straub

Dutton. 358 pp. $19.95

"IN THIS WORLD," says the narrator of "The Juniper Tree," referring to a world created by a pedophile in the back row of a movie house for purposes of seduction, "dismembered children buried beneath juniper trees can rise and speak, made whole again." The juniper tree here stands for the narrative imagination, that faculty of mind which routinely stitches up the chaos of the world and brings forth meaning. A benign, even indispensable faculty you'd think, but not so: Peter Straub in his new collection of stories is at pains throughout to sound a cautionary tone, to warn his reader that the creation and consumption of narrative are dangerous and potentially fatal activities, and that to enter the realm of the symbolic is to court violence, evil, regression, madness and death.

The first two stories are very fine indeed. Set in shabby Midwestern cities, and focused on children uneasily residing in unhappy homes, they explore the liabilities of the ill-disciplined imagination. "Blue Rose" is a chillingly well observed picture of a dysfunctional family in which the second youngest child, Harry, becomes the conduit of a violence that seemingly springs from a number of sources: from his place in the family pecking order, and the displacements of hatred from the mother at the top down through Little Eddie at the bottom; from his reading, and the invasion of his daydreams by gangsters and Nazis; and from his fathers stories of Dachau in the last days of World War II. Harry is the sort of bad seed in whom such whiffs and glimpses of violence provoke a quite devastating eruption of evil, and this occurs in the symbolically charged space of the attic, amongst his mother's old clothes. It is here that Harry, who will later be court-martialed for war atrocities in Vietnam, learns to hypnotize Little Eddie, and then has his murderous way with him. A picture of evil is thus created that suggests a vampiric force moving across time in constant search of fresh hosts, and finding its richest blood in the fantasies of the impressionable and the immature.

In "The Juniper Tree" evil wears a subtler mask. Temptation and corruption occur in a movie theater, where a small boy -- later to become the writer who tells story -- manages to confuse cinema with reality, this confusion rendering him vulnerable to the insinuations of a pedophile wino. Straub's handling of the boy's relationship with his grubby seducer is superb: fear and fascination and susceptibility to flattery all working in the child to overcome his instinctive disgust at handling the other's "Jimmy," which in his little hand feels "warm and slightly gummy." The moral of the tale is not a simple one, for the "disconnected and dismembered pieces of the world" that the narrative brings together divide not neatly into the good and the bad but offer more troublesome pairings: the affectionate wino as against the cold, castrating father; the ideal parents, Alan Ladd and Donna Reed, as against the actual ones; the reality of home as against the illusions of film; and finally, the boy as against the man he will become. If the movie house is where these perilously disparate elements find their focus, then the story, itself a product of the protagonist's creative imagination, is what tentatively unifies them.

These two stories are set off from a pair of complicated and somewhat enigmatic novellas by a gorgeous piece of black Borgesian whimsy, "A Short Guide To The City." Straub here indulges his sense of humor to quietly hilarious effect. A cold Midwestern city that "cherishes the ordinary" and is "proud of its modesty," whose "characteristic mode is denial," yet seems to have a quite extraordinary preoccupation with the various forms of violence occurring within its precincts. There is, for example, the notorious "viaduct killer," who reappears every so often between passages of architectural and demographic analysis like a grimly tolling bell; there are the East European neighborhoods where "the descendants of the hard-drinking wolf-breeders of another time have long since abandoned the practice of crippling their children . . . but self-mutilation has proved more difficult to eradicate"; and of course, there's the Green Woman Taproom, "the spot from which a disgruntled lunatic attempted and failed to assassinate President Dwight D. Eisenhower." This eccentric travelogue, organized as it is around the idea of violence, closes with an inspired image, that of the "Broken Span," an incomplete bridge that "has the violence of all unfinished things, of everything interrupted or left undone." A beautifully sustained piece of descriptive writing, "A Short Guide" is shot through with gallows humor and sewn up with an elegant philosophical reflection.

Of the two novellas, "Mrs. God" is the stronger, an oddly powerful narrative that depicts the journey of a mediocre English professor to a lonely house in the north of England, there to grapple not only with his own demons but those of the house as well. Part myth of identity, part ghost story nested within a deeper vampire story, part allegory whose object of inquiry is herself an allegorist, "Mrs. God" sets up multiple mirrorings and layerings that produce an almost vertiginous sense of anxiety in the reader.

There are at least three distinct narrative strands spliced here, one relating to the professor's marriage, a second to the history of the house and a third to a recent grisly murder in a nearby town; and the interrelationship of the three remains mysterious, to say the least. "Mrs. God" may be about a hungry house fattening up a haunted and unstable victim for the kill, in the process arousing in him a complex guilt response toward a hated spouse; it may also be the collection's fullest exploration of the nature of language and narrative -- of literature itself -- which here would seem to have no redemptive value at all but instead a fusty, suffocating, life-denying quality that in the end provokes a glorious act of apocalyptic liberation. What finally keeps the reader moving through this vortex is the sheer power and originality of Straub's imagination: "A crowd of languid ghosts raised their teacups and from the corners of their eyes watched him pass," he remarks at one point, and at another, again referring to the ghosts: "In the East Hall he saw them standing in pairs, twisting their hands together, their lips moving in their endless clever talk-talk, never dreaming what dreamed about them from behind the walls and waited."

Houses Without Doors is a big, generous collection, and it demonstrates that in hands like Straub's the horror genre is quite sufficiently supple, and versatile, to attack complex themes with vitality, sophistication, and wit.

Patrick McGrath is the author of "Blood and Water," "The Grotesque" and, most recently, "Spider."