While Stephen King and Peter Straub write completely different styles of horror, they are obsessed with growing up in the 50s and the 1960s. Both me have written many books set in that period, or have stories set in the present, but have many roots in those halcyon years. Straub admitted the idea for A Dark Matter came out of the turbulent 1960s, set in the college town of Madison, Wisconsin (Straub was raised in Milwaukee).
The tale is about a charismatic and cunning man named Spenser Mallon who is a campus guru in 1966, where he’s attracted the devotion - and sometimes sexual favors- of his young acolytes. After he invites his most fervent followers to attend a secret ritual in a local meadow, the only thing that remains is a gruesomely dismembered body—and the shattered souls of all who were present.
Straub told the FLAMES RISING web site that the book “evolved out of a desire I had to think about the various sages and gurus I had seen pass through Madison. I think there were three altogether; at least, I witnessed the actions and behaviors of three of these gents. They were all articulate, interesting, and predatory. Almost all of what they said was nonsense, but they did get a bunch of kids to look into the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I started to wonder: what might happen if one of these sleazy wisdom-merchants did actually reveal a portion of the Other World, the World Unseen, in the course of a home-made ritual.”
Anyways, years later, one man attempts to understand what happened to his wife and to his friends by writing a book about this horrible night, and it’s through this process that they begin to examine the unspeakable events that have bound them in ways they cannot fathom, but that have haunted every one of them through their lives. As each of the old friends tries to come to grips with the darkness of the past, they find themselves face-to-face with the evil triggered so many years earlier.
More psychological thriller than horror of his early (a trend Straub started back in the 80s) works, the novel is also very literate –very unusual in this genre. Still, despite many things that work – a shifting character perspectives, nested flashbacks, a story that spans four decades, and an attractive, if not somewhat charming cast – the novel takes way too long to kick in. Why spend 500 pages talking, investigating and going on and on about a single event and then, somehow, make that event not really matter?
Straub is a rare writer, able to write some great fiction with heart, believable people and layer it with great words that can inspire a reader. So while A Dark Matter is a good read, it falters when it comes to actually being what I had hoped it would be.