Peter Straub writes horror the way P.D. James writes mystery ---
that is to say, both of these authors rise above their genres by
virtue of complexity and style. In MR. X, Straub returns to the
chilling world of the supernatural with an intensity his readers
have not seen in his novels since GHOST STORY and THE TALISMAN
(co-authored with Stephen King). Others may argue the point, but I
think MR. X is his finest book yet.
Think about this: What if you were looking at the world through the
eyes and mind of Rosemary's Baby as that baby grew up into manhood,
not knowing his true identity, having to figure it out by himself
in a world where his father is absent and his mother doesn't
understand him? There you have the title character, MR. X, who
talks to us in first person from time to time throughout the book.
So we DO get to look through those eyes, and quite a bone-numbing
and nerve-shredding experience it is, too. It ain't easy being
Readers of horror fiction have become accustomed to the first
person voices of sympathetic vampire characters; Mr. X is so far
above all that, so superior to any vampire in every way, there is
simply no comparison. Mr. X could vanquish any old vampire just
like blowing out a match. He can turn a human being into a puddle
with no more consequence to himself than a slight headache. Of
course, he's a creature entirely of the Dark Side --- you might say
he's our galaxy's Darth Vader. He's not the Devil, he's a direct
descendant of the Elder Gods. The Old Ones.
Then there is Ned, a young man who is the real protagonist of this
book. Ned is the son of Star Dunstan. Ned doesn't know who his
father is, nor does he know anywhere near as much as he needs to
about his mother's entire family, when the book begins. Star is
dying. She has always protected him from the Dunstans --- who are
all more than a little peculiar. Star --- such a sympathetic
character that I wished she could have stayed around longer --- was
so determined to protect Ned that she gave him up to be raised by a
foster family rather than allow his aunts to get close to him.
Nevertheless, Ned can no more escape his fate than Luke Skywalker.
Ned has strange dreams and visions, especially on his birthdays;
and all his life he has been haunted by a sense that someone is
right behind him, maybe his own shadow. But try as he may, he can
never catch this shadow no matter how hard he tries, how quickly he
turns his head or how fast he runs.
MR. X is the story of Ned's attempt to find his father and his
shadow, and how Mr. X stalks his own fate. It is shot through with
Lovecraftian imagery and references, but one does not have to be a
Lovecraft fan (I can attest to this, because I'm not one) in order
to become deeply engrossed in the book. There is true terror here;
imagery that reaches deep, deep into the human psyche and touches
the places we think we can hide from our nightmares.
Reviewed by Dianne Day, author of the Fremont Jones mystery novels, http://www.dianneday.com on January 22, 2011