Trying to stuff a Peter Straub story into a neat little genre box
should carry the admonition: Do not bend, fold, or mutilate. With a
literary genius that vibrates between dark and light, fantasy and
reality, horror and humor, Straub is a dedicated storyteller who
dives into our emotional well again and again. He was the kid in
high school who told "The Hook" legend and had everyone believing.
He wants you gasping and giggling in the same breath --- and we do.
Now, with MAGIC TERROR, he's put together a collection of the most
bizarre tales, some old, some new, and all designed to give your
mind a vigorous workout.
"Ashputtle" is a first person narrative of a demented soul
suffocating under the weight of its own evil. With eerie references
to the voices of her past and present, Mrs. Ash has chosen to
fulfill her adventurous spirit by becoming an elementary school
teacher. She fancies herself elevated to a higher plane than
ordinary humans, with the perfect solution for coping with her own
fragile psyche. "I have always known that I could save myself by
looking into my own mind." Where this introspection leads her is
both surprising and sickening.
A predictable conclusion can be found in "Isn't It Romantic," a
more earthy thriller that deals with the familiar theme of secret
agents and the old-fashioned double cross. What makes it
interesting is the blend of dark suspense with the more puckish
characterization of agent "N," who lets his cockiness blind him to
the obvious game afoot. In typical fashion, Straub has us smiling
at human foolishness as he leads us toward the blood bath.
"The Ghost Village," set in Vietnam, is a mini collection of
stories in itself. A family tragedy back home, a commander who's
gone over the edge, and mysterious murders in a village are mingled
with the accepted ironies of war: drugs, alcoholism, and placing
bets on the lieutenant's life span. The sad trilogy of incidents
reveals the haunted minds of the soldiers trying to cope with the
unbearable, and leaves us speculating just how fictitious these
particular tales really are.
And then there's "Bunny is Good Bread," a gruesome scenario of a
husband's malevolence, combining domestic abuse and psychotic
behavior in the worst extreme. As the torture of Anna Bandolier is
revealed through the eyes of her son, Straub expands the cruelty
even further with the eventual abuse of the child as well. His
imagery is so explicit it's powerfully disturbing and will take a
strong stomach and a good deal of determination to finish
Last of the seven tales, the inclusion of his famous "Mr. Club and
Mr. Cuff" masterpiece provides the most vivid example of Straub's
twin components of horror and black comedy. The seemingly affable
pair of thugs are hired by a man wanting to punish his unfaithful
wife, but he winds up discovering, in hideous detail, that a simple
business transaction may be far more ominous than he imagined. The
humorous facet? I'll leave it to you to decide where, or if, the
comic aspect enters in to this mind bender; but it certainly gives
new meaning to the phrase "slice and dice."
If you're thinking by now that Straub is operating the depravity
meter at full tilt --- he is --- yet with an extraordinary gift for
commingling a wide range of raw emotions in his stories. While not
all of these stories will appeal to everyone, on the whole, MAGIC
TERROR is as complex a collection as you're likely to
Reviewed by Ann L. Bruns (BkPageWC@aol.com) on January 22, 2011