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Peter Straub's A Dark Matter
modern lit
So I read Peter Straub's A Dark Matter awhile back, and I was delighted to find that it's the book The Secret History should have been.

It's a testament against the old "there are no new stories" rag, and shows why that's an irrelevant thing to say. There are an infinite number of ways to tell any story. ADM is exactly the same story as The Secret History: a bunch of entitled college students fall under the spell of a charismatic teacher, have a demonic ritual in the woods that unexpectedly works, and accidentally kill somebody. The story is told from the point of view of the outsider of the group, the one who never quite belonged.

Exact same story. Totally different book.

The difference is that what happened at the ritual in The Secret History is annoyingly summed up third hand in about two and a half pages, when it's about the only interesting thing these characters ever do, where as in A Dark Matter, it's, well, the whole matter. I may be showing my genre colors here, but it's nice to get to the meat of it rather than having to dick around with unpleasant people for 500 pages because that's Real Literature and foul rituals aren't.

I feel like saying "Ma, that Peter Straub can really put a sentence together" is stating the obvious, since he's pretty famous for it. But damn, it was so pleasant sinking into a book that was elegant and interesting from the first page, presenting a voice I found compelling--and dude, this thing takes place largely in flashbacks to the 60s, and you know how I hate books about the 60s, so that should tell you how smooth and lovely the prose was. I read a lot of debut novels, because most of my friends are young novelists of some stripe, and while debut novels are often fresh and awesome and daring, they often haven't gotten it All Figured Out yet, hence the daring, but also a certain amount of by-definition rough at the edges. It was really nice to sit back and watch a master do his work.

There's certainly comparisons to be made to IT--the lone girl in the group is the focus of everyone's obsession, there's a nascent serial killer killed before he could really bloom, and What Happened That Summer is a classic for a reason. But A Dark Matter is essentially a character study, and not the postmodern wildebeest that IT is. DM is and oddly kind and elegaic book, and it also largely takes place in Madison, where Wiscon occurs, and therefore the source of a lot of delight at recognizing locales.

If I had one criticism it would be that in the end, I wanted more of the ritual, more understanding of the strange things they saw. It's still a Dark Matter at the end, we still don't really understand what it was they did (unlike The Secret History where we're bluntly told exactly what they did, with no details as to how they did it or what it was like. God, that book upsets me) or what reality they were glimpsing. But I do understand that this is part of my kink as a writer. I think of it in terms of Kelly Link's story The Faery Handbag, which ends with a character entering the world contained within the handbag. But for me, stories always start in the handbag, because that's my obsession--the handbag, the underworld, the other place, not the world outside it. Not everyone has to have my obsessions.

It's a book that makes me sigh because there should be more like it. I love horror--and I do think this counts as horror, the intrusion fantasy type. I want more of it. Not splatterpunk, but elegant, gorgeous dark books full of fright and touches of the numinous. I remember, when I was a kid and I barely read anything else, horror novels being like that. The Red Tree was like that. I want to write books like that.

In the end, A Dark Matter isn't quite a book that will stick in my soul. Contrary to popular belief, I don't require everything I read to crack open my whole being and fill it with molten awesome to give it a good review. It was a solid, lovely book, genuine and eerie and it was a completely wonderful two days I spent reading it. I think about it, weeks later. It says something that so few books I've read lately have even shown me a good time for two days. (Some exceptions.) But it didn't make me want to choke anyone or give up writing forever. These days that's saying a lot, and it's really all I ask.

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"It's a testament against the old "there are no new stories" rag, and shows why that's an irrelevant thing to say."

I try to strike this one down every chance I get. The whole IDEA of a story is something we made up; the idea that there should only be a finite number of them is doubly confabulated. It's annoying, because there are any number of people proving this canard wrong every darn day.

Hmmm. I might have to pick this one up and read it. A Dark Matter, that is, not the other one. It sounds interesting, and it has your stamp of approval, of course. ^_^

And here I almost inserted a bunch of babble that really had nothing to do with anything, but I've restrained myself.

Insert babble, it's what blog comments are for!


Mostly, it was about how odd my book tastes are in comparision with my fairly ecclectic music tastes. With music, I'll listen to almost anything as long as the lyrics are compelling.

With books, I... I'm fairly tradtionalist when it comes to plot and how a story is told, and I've only recently begun to stretch my boundaries as far as that goes. Thank you for that, btw. Reading Palimpsest was an experience for me, as I adored your language, but on the first read-through it didn't seem to fulfill my tradional expectations are far as plot and purpose and all that jazz. Then I read The Orphan's Tales and fell in love, and decided to give Palimpsest another try and pretty much fell in love with it on the second read-through (I started a drawing of Casimira, but ran out of green pencil... :/).

Through you, I moved on and read The Red Tree, which I still need to review.

I come across conflicts with the writer and the reader parts of myself. As a writer, there are stylistic and plot choices I can appreciate that drive me absolutely batty as a reader (which is a large part of my conflicting feelings about The Red Tree). I've found myself on more than one occasion filled with anger or frustration at the end of a book I've read, wishing the author had done something different, even while the writer in me is going "But really, it was perfect, and made sense, and and...."

I think the point of all of this was that you and I might have different expectations as readers, and A Dark Matter sounds interesting but may end up not fulfilling my expectations as a reader even though it fulfilled yours.

Or something.

Thanks for the review. Sounds promising.

I haven't read the Straub, but you have hit the nail bang on the head in how you describe Secret History - I had the same reaction. My husband and I are pretty divided on Secret History, because I just don't think it deserved all the hoopla it generated, and he loves it. Thing is, we're both genre freaks, so who knows?

I'll definitely pick up the Straub.

I am so glad to find I am not the only person who was meh about The Secret History!

I haven't read either of these, but based on your review and my prior experiences, I'm more likely to pick up Straub. I did read M John Harrison's The Course of the Heart, after seeing it in the Strange Horizons review of Palimpsest, and on the surface it seems to have a very similar conceit as well. Out of curiosity, have you read it, and what did you think?

(I've really been enjoying these book/film reviews lately - thank you :)

I haven't read it. I'll check it out.

That Peter Straub sure does write pretty, don't he? Whenever I read something new of his, I find myself wanting to call someone up on the phone and say, "LISTEN to this! Isn't it beautiful?"

You, too.

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