A Dark Matter is the recent novel from American horror writer, Peter Straub. Praise from Stephen King is proudly blazoned on the front cover of the paperback: “Terrifying…impossible to put down.” This alone is incentive enough for any horror fan to pick up the book and inspect its content, but there is not just the promise of horror in this book. It is also a story wrapped in intrigue and mystery that makes it a contender for a good thriller. But does it live up to the high praise that King awards it?
The story centres on Lee Harwell, a writer struggling to start another fictional project after the success of his last novel. A series of small incidents lead him to investigate a terrible event that happened to people closest to him when he was a teenager in the sixties.
In his final year of high school, Lee’s friends met a charismatic campus guru, Spencer Mallon, who turned their worlds around. Lee stubbornly was not drawn to his tales and life theories and kept well away, but his closest friends (which include his now wife) were enthralled and doted on Spencer’s every word.
The consequences of their adoration lie in mystery. All that was known was, one evening in 1966, Spencer Mallon lead his followers into a meadow to perform a ritual. Afterwards, all that was left was a gruesome dismembered body and the broken souls of those that survived. Their lives would never be the same.
For Lee Harwell the secret had stayed hidden long enough and it was now the material for his next non-fiction book.
The subject matter of the story is instantly intriguing: what on earth could have happened in that field? We must read on and find out! But there are many layers to this book that go deeper than the basic storyline.
The characters of the story are all fascinating, each one described by the protagonist with ease and a genuine admiration that gives the reader a good idea of their personal relationships, how they regarded each other and why they followed Spencer Mallon to the meadow.
We begin to get a picture of all the events leading up to that fateful night through each person like a jigsaw puzzle and it is unclear for a while as to where it is going, and what the final outcome will be.
There are some fabulous characters to get involved with, mainly their cherub-like friend, Hootie Bly, who has since been locked in a childlike innocence. Or Meredith Bright, who, in a complete bipolar reaction to events, became a cold hearted woman set on success. Each one is talked about leading up to their inevitable reunion, generating excitement in the reader as to whom you’re going to meet and how they have been affected since the evening in the meadow.
Details of the actual event are held back. When you feel you are getting closer to the mystery you are pulled back by Straub, as if to say, ‘That’s enough for now.’ But there are also revelations about the survivors’ later lives that are given to you halfway through the book, making you wonder how you got this far without knowing that information, which is astounding. It is quite the tease for the reader, but an effective tool that renders the book ‘unputdownable’.
Straub also uses various voices for the narrative, although all told through Lee, it is his friends who are retelling their version of that night. The constant jump in time and perspective make the book continually refreshing and suspenseful.
While the book is incredibly enjoyable, towards the end it does seem to lose track of where it’s going and what it is ultimately going to reveal.
A Dark Matter also can not be simply labelled as a ‘horror novel’. Anyone expecting a simple scary, gore-fest will be disappointed, as there are far too many themes running through it. The mystery gives it a thriller edge and the relationships between the friends (and enemies) make it a fantastic psychological novel.
But, collectively, it does keep you guessing, and when it all ties in, the end result will have the desired effect. You will consider it for a long time after.
A Dark Matter is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.
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