Each of the three books I have read by Peter Straub (he has written five) -- "Julia," "Ghost Story" and now "Shadowland" -- feels nasty. Clever, but nasty.
As a devotee of the horror tale, I speak as one who knows well what Virginia Woolf once called "that strange human craving for feeling afraid," the delicious sensation of giving oneself over to fiction-induced shivers and shocks. Yet Straub somehow arouses my critical faculties when they should be napping; I sense the machinery of his imagination, and the lack of pleasure I derive from his work thus stems from my inability to relax while in his hands. I also hold back because of an element of sadism in Straub that takes the foreground from time to time; if he is not as misanthropic as another cruel-seeming curent practitioner or weird fiction, Harlan Ellison, he is certainly as cold-blooded.
In "Shadowland" Straub has created a hall of mirrors. Nothing is what it seems, reality and illusion blend, and a truly sinister chaos is the result, with magic gone amok. Like Walter de la Mare's classis short story, "Steaton's Aunt," the basic setup is a simple one: A boy is invited to visit the house of a school friend's relation, in this case a man, not a woman, who turns out to be a person of exceeding and unpleasant strangeness. "Shadowland" might in fact be named "Nightingale's Uncle," after the figure who controls the horrific proceedings, but instead takes its title from the name of the house itself, where "everything . . . is a lie."
Like John Fowles' "The Magus," "Shadowland" presents a character -- Coleman Collins, originally Charles Nightingale, uncle and idol of young Del Nightingale -- whose modus operandi is domination through disorientation and manipulation through the staging of scenes. Sometimes these scenes involve flesh-and-blood people acting roles; at other times they are a sort of cinema of the mind, forced hallucinations that foreshadow events or flash back to the past.
Before he ever comes to Shadowland, situated somewhere in the Vermont countryside, Tom Flanagan has already, without knowing it, experienced from afar some of Coleman Collins' nightmarish conjurations. Carson, a private school in Arizona, his home state, is where Tom meets Del, a frail orphan with whom he shares a passion for card tricks and magic. And it is at Carson that Tom first begins to sense hovering, indistinct danger.
"Funny things had been happening to me. I hardly had the vocabulary to express them . . . some days, it was like I never woke up at all, but went through school and the rest of the day in some sort of dream, full of terrible hints and omens."
Ghastly birds, from tiny sparrows to immense owls, haunt him; soon the entire student body seems infested by bad dreams, both waking and sleeping. For Tom, things come to a head when Del shows off his ability to levitate while the two of them are alone practicing for a magic performance. "What had really struck me," Tom later reflects, "was the utter wrongness of it. Because I knew it was real . . . it seemed like the moment everything, all the craziness, had been leading to, the birds and the weird visions and everything else. I felt sick to my stomach. I was being frog-marched into magic, and I scarcely knew what was true and what was false anymore."
What the alarming and ultimately tragic events at Carson School are leading up to is the summer to be spent at Shadowland by the two boys, in the thrall of a master necromancer whose intentions are anything but avuncular. Tom goes along, partly because he intuits a need to protect Del (but from what he does not yet know) and partly because the pull he himself feels toward Shadowland is stronger than he can resist. The answers are there . . . but what are the questions?
Shadowland is quickly revealed to be a total environment, a Disneyland of Evil, from which the boys cannot excape. At first Del, a frequent visitor in the past, wants to stay ("I've been through this about a million times, remember?"). Later, when he wants to leave, it's too late. For the reader, as for the captive Tom and his friend, the thrills have long since stopped being entertaining.
Aside from its general ugliness of spirit, there are quite a few things wrong with "Shadowland." First, it's off-balance, in a way that don't think Straub is aware of because he goes to such pains to weave together the two distinct physical places in the book, the school and -- across the country -- the house. Though there are portents in the one of what will happen in the other, once at Shadowland the mood is so powerful, the activity so feverish, that all of what has occurred prior to the boys' arrival there seems, in retrospect, superfluous. Second, "Shadowland" is pretentious. Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm are materialized in order to play bit parts, to provide the kindly uncle tendencies so missing from Coleman Collins' behavior, as well as to create a central clearinghouse for the fairy tales (and allusions to fairy and folklore) that dot the book. "These stories are not for every child -- they do not suit every child. The terror is there, and it is real. But our best defense is nature, is it not?" Tom finds them in a room that has been forbidden to him, and they converse with him, like two Bruno Bellelheims in lederhosen. "All stories unfold. But they take many turns before they reach their ends. Embrace the treasure, child. It is our best advise . . . Shadowland is everything to us, as it may be to you. Shadowland is where we spent our busy lives."
Third, "Shadowland" is derivative, of "The Magus," as I mentioned before, but, more importantly, of Stephen King. Sure, both Straub and King are mining the same supernatural lode, but the former's most recent pair of novels, especially this one, call to mind the latter in just too many ways. Straub's text is shot through with brand names (Gant shirts, Bass Weejuns, Swanson's TV Chicken Dinners, etc.) in a way that will be familiar to King fans. He also uses sentence fragments, parentheses, ellipses and italics in similar Kingian fashion, and he employs the verbs "nudge" and "tug" in a manner akin to King's "flex," "shove" and "push," indicating psychical mental interference. The nature of the battle here between good and evil -- with haunted dreams, a sweet-talking demon and a benevolent guardian black person -- also brings a sense of deja vu.
Though not totally meretricious, "Shadowland" is fright without joy; or to put it another way, tricks but no treat.