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.