Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Ex Libris: A Haunted Home

Peter Straub's always been a mixed bag for me and his book, lost boy lost girl, is no exception.

I remember reading my first Straub book, Koko, coming off a finish of the Peter Straub-Stephen King mind-blowing collaboration, The Talisman. At that time, I was wondering: what's so horrific about about a group of Vietnam veterans trying to catch a serial killer? (Of course I didn't realize that I had already read a prior Straub book when I was a kid: Shadowland. But I digress.)

That's when I realized I was reading something a bit different; you could say that Straub is a more literary version of King. Or a literary version of a horror writer. Or... anyway, you get what I mean.

Hey, I was young then.

Anyway, lost boy lost girl is more of the same: the history of a serial killer and at the same time a story of a haunted house. Likewise, it's also a study of a family falling apart due to secrets of the past: the mother kills herself, the father grows more distant and cold and the son tries to find himself in the aftermath of the tragedy. This as the brother-in-law (the protagonist-novelist first seen in Koko) Tim Underhill, tries to keep the remaining family members together. Until the son disappears...

Looming over the whole thing is the house itself: a black presence weighing heavily on the minds on those it "calls" while completely off the radar for the rest of the world. It is here that Straub shines brightly (or is that darkly?) as he details a house that is so oppressive, you feel the words describing the house almost pull the book pages out of your hands completely.

So, lost boy lost girl is a lot of things: a haunted-house horror, a serial-killer thriller, a ghost story, a drama about family falling apart, and a coming-of-age tale. I can see here why Straub is considered the equivalent of King but at the opposite end: there is no outright, in-your-face horror here that is normal for such a genre novel. Rather, Straub's strength is his prose in creating the atmosphere of dread and the detail of ominous shadows. Here, there is no blood-and guts gore, only the fear. And in this age of over-the-top scare factor, the subtle approach is enough.

Secondary is the author's deftness in his storytelling skill: Straub goes on a carousel of viewpoints-- including one about the mother before she kills herself-- without losing the reader on issues of tedium, believability and continuity. (Well, almost as he nearly lost me on the latter.) Straub is no George R.R. Martin; but then again, this isn't an epic fantasy tale and Straub only needs to concentrate on those characters important to the telling of the tale.

My only negative reaction to this book were two-fold. The first may have been my fault: sometimes, I felt I knew that Straub was trying to scare me but I was too self-conscious enough to know that he was doing it. It was annoying-- like catching your friend sneaking up on you several times while watching a horror show-- but I can't say whether I'm annoyed at myself or at Straub.

The second was the ending; though I can't say anything about it to avoid spoilage, let's just say I had trouble accepting the story's possible happy finish as a matter of plausibility. I suppose this was unavoidable as Straub was juggling too many things. Still, this was forgiveable and I'm willing try a Straub book again in the future.

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