The 1960s was a time of social unrest in America, and youths all around the country were seeking to expand their minds and find something to believe in that challenged the status quo. This sentiment also gave rise to several guru-like leaders, some of whom were true mentors and others of whom were more in line with Charles Manson. In his latest novel, A DARK MATTER, horror master Peter Straub has introduced just such a character in the personification of Spencer Mallon. Mallon is not a Manson figure and does not have evil intentions, but he is easily seduced by dark fantasy and often quotes from THE TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD.
Mallon is such a charismatic figure that a group of high school and college students quickly fall under his spell. His new acolytes are intrigued by the possibilities he promises them and are all too eager to follow his every bequest. One fateful evening in Madison, Wisconsin, in the year 1966 changes all their lives forever. Mallon gets five high school students and two local college fraternity boys to follow him into an abandoned field to attempt a forbidden ritual. When dawn comes, one of the older boys is found horribly mutilated and the other has completely disappeared. The high school friends are scarred in different ways, and their lives all take separate paths after this event.
Flash forward 40 years, and the novel is taken over by the narrator, thriller author Lee Harwell, who is married to Lee Truax, one of the five high school students. Nicknamed “the Eel” by her friends, Truax has permanently lost her vision and does charity work with groups that help the blind and others who are disabled due to violent acts. Her husband was also a classmate of the other students who followed Mallon, but he was not interested in or swayed by the ’60s guru and did not participate in the event. Harwell has decided to write a novel about the tragic “ritual” of 40 years prior, and to do so he must interview each participant individually to get their story.
It is at this point that the novel takes on a Rashomon quality --- the great film by Akira Kurosawa in which a group of individuals who witness a rape/murder all seem to have varying recollections of the same event. Straub has a different chapter section for each of Truax’s high school cronies, and Harwell gets to hear what they personally experienced the night of Mallon’s ritual. The former high school friends could not be more different from each other: Donald “Dilly” Olson, the leader of the group and first acolyte of Mallon’s; Jason “Boats” Boatman, a lifelong thief who has spent time behind bars; Hootie Bly, the youngest of the group who is now confined to a mental institution where he talks in only literary references; and Meredith Bright, one of Mallon’s many female conquests and now a soulless wife of a U.S. Senator.
Harwell first teams up with Olson, who also accompanies him on visits with the other members of the group. Olson is still deluded by Mallon and holds him fairly blameless for what happened. As the interviews take place, you begin to see a pattern. They all bought into Mallon’s rhetoric and believed without question that he knew more than they did about life when he told them, “One day, probably far in the future and certainly when you least expect it, you will find yourself in some totally impersonal, anonymous space, and the most important choice of your life will be before you.” Little did the group know that the choice they made to follow Mallon blindly into his ritual would impact their own futures in terrible ways.
All of the interviews Harwell holds are interesting, and Peter Straub has created some complex characters. It seems all of the characters who inhabit the universe of Straub’s novels are morally questionable and faced with challenges that they are not always able to overcome. The versions of the events of that tragic night are vastly different, but at their core is one common thread: Spencer Mallon somehow opened a door to another dimension, and the evil and non-malevolent beings that inhabited that space were not all too pleased at being invaded and readily unleashed their madness and violence upon this unsuspecting group. Instead of the promise of glory and power, the universe Mallon had given his followers was one of hellish nightmares beyond their comprehension.
Straub utilizes this quote early in the novel: “That’s it? The story ended when the guy opened the door? You’ll see. Everything stops when you open the door.” It proves to be quite prophetic as the doors opened by the characters in this tale should have remained closed. Straub’s work is always bold and imaginative, and seems to cross the boundary between horror and classic literature --- with constant allusions to other literary works and even references to former characters from his own novels, like Tim Underhill. A DARK MATTER will challenge those who read it, but it is definitely worth the trip.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on December 29, 2010