The funny thing about reading the reviews for A Dark Matter by Peter Straub is the variance in them. Some gave it two stars, others four. I’m in the latter category. I liked this book a lot. Didn’t love it (and I’ll tell you why in a second) but I liked it very much.
A Dark Matter follows a group of close-knit high school friends who fall under the spell of a charismatic guru, Spencer Mallon, in 1966 Milwaukee. Mallon is a handsome charlatan; he knows enough about the occult to be dangerous. The group of high school friends is an endearing lot of misfits, all except one, the narrator, from broken homes. They go by nicknames: the Eel, a beautiful girl named Lee; Hootie, or Howard, who has an eidetic memory (he remembers, word for word, everything he reads); Boats, or Jason Boatman, who shoplifts anything he can get his hands on; and Dilly, who falls in love with Mallon and becomes his acolyte. Together with two creepy misfits, Milstrap and Haywood, and the beautiful Meredith Bright, Mallon’s girlfriend, all except Lee, the narrator (not the Eel, the girl, but a male friend name Lee) fall flat on their faces before Mallon. He dazzles them with his knowledge; attacts with all the promises of Satan, including free beer, frat parties, sex galore and more.
Mallon is, however, dangerous. He has studied the occult and decides to end his reign of freeloading and deception in the college town where the kids live with a ritual to evoke sacred mysteries. Meredith casts a horoscope to determine the right day and time, but student riots and protests against the Vietnam war prevent the group from arriving at the designated spot on time. The results are catastrophic, for Mallon does manage to open the veil between the worlds….and what comes through and leaves alters the teens’ lives forever….
The action of the story takes place through the narrator, Lee, who marries the Eel. It’s a little confusing because Lee, called Twin in his high school days, has the same name as The Eel (Lee spelled backwards.) He among the group of friends thinks Mallon is bullshit, and he refuses to go along with the group when they follow the guru. The result is a lonely year for Lee as his friends get more and more into the occult, but he sticks to his guns and eventually reconciles with his girlfriend, the Eel, marries her, and becomes a successful author.
It is his quest to find a new topic for a novel and the sudden reappearance of Dilly in his life that prompts Lee to investigate that fateful summer. We learn that dear little Hootie, perhaps the most sensitive among the characters, has been committed to a mental hospital since that night in 1966; Boats has turned from a life of crime to that of an entrepreneur; and the Eel has gone blind for reasons unknown, but related to the events of that night. Lee has to unearth everyone’s stories to paint a picture of sex, lies and deceit, followed by the truth of what really happened that night.
I found this book fascinating for many reasons. First, I liked Straub’s use of interwoven narratives. It was ambitious and he handled the changing voices of the various stories with dexterity and skill. All of the characters are believable, with Lee, the Eel and Hootie perhaps the most memorable. Mallon is painted as the penultimate wizard archetype, the Magician from the tarot deck, believable in both his mage-like skills and the glamour he casts. Whenever the author describes Mallon, I hear in my mind the Catholic baptismal promises we repeat at Easter. The priest asks, “Do you reject the glamour of evil?” Glamour of evil perfectly describes Mallon.
The metaphysical aspects of the story are deftly handled, with a great deal of research given to the Renaissance practices of the old alchemists; the archetypes and mythological elements well handled; and I found the story believable, as far as you can believe stories of the paranormal.
What I didn’t like in the book was Straub trotting out his usual crutch. “There’s a serial killer, he preys on young women/boys, he kills cats, he likes knives, and he lives in Milwaukee.” Sorry — I don’t mean to belittle the evil of such a thing — but c’mon, Mr. Straub. In every freaking book you write? It’s like your own personal Bogey Man trotted out for form’s sake in every narrative you pen. Leave him lurking in the closet. This book could have stood well on its own without trotting out Tim Underhill, the character from your Koko and Blue Rose books, and the old Milwaukee serial killer stereotype. You give Milwaukee a bad name….
At any rate, I give this book four stars out of five. I purchased my copy from a discount book catalog, but it is also available through Amazon.