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A Dark Matter: (A Book Review)

Updated on December 13, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


Preface to the Review

For those of you who have never read a book review of mine, let me caution you about something. You may find my approach rather different from what you are used to, especially on the Internet, if I may say so.

I always begin the book review from a place of profound respect for the professional, professionally published author. I always feel compelled to give her the respect she deserves, especially from the likes of me, a non-professional, non-published, amateur scribbler.

I do not "rate" the books I review. That is to say, I do not rate them up or down, recommend or not-recommend, give a certain number of "stars," or rate them between 1-10, and so forth. I do not comment on "character development" or plot construction. Such things are subjective, drawn to the aesthetic taste of the author.

Only in very, very rare cases of obvious malpractice in these realms, will you find me, perhaps, having anything to say about plot construction and character development.

Also, I almost never give plot synopses of the books I review. For one thing, you can get plot summaries anywhere. For another, plot summaries can be misleading, not unlike certain movie trailers, which lead you to believe you're going to get one kind of movie, which actually ends up delivering something else when you see the film straight through.

Does that make sense? Have you ever seen a movie trailer, expecting one kind of movie, only to be disappointed that that was not the actual movie delivered?

The way you experience the book, is the way you experience the book; and it will be different for individuals because we each bring our own unique "baggage" to the literature.

Are you following me? This is something we have all be told in our high school English/Language Arts classes, I'm sure.

What I try to do is show you the innards of the book. I try to relate how the book seems to "work," and what it seems to be trying to accomplish. With that laid bare, you can make up your own mind, as to whether it is a book you would like to read.



Let's begin

Today we are considering a novel by Peter Straub, "A Dark Matter." The version I'm working with is hardcover, published by Doubleday in 2010. The book length is just under 400 pages. Though I must say that the writing is very fluid; and for that reason it reads rather faster than 400 pages, in my opinion. You could, if you pressed, finish the book in one or two days, like I did; or even one sitting.

What is the basic story?

The basic story is that, sometime in the mid-1960s, a group of high school friends (and a couple of seriously troubled misfits), who are spiritual seekers of sorts (though not part of the so-called "hippie" scene), come under the sway of a dazzling, charismatic young man, a few years older than themselves. This fellow's name is Spencer Mallon.

Mallon, too, is somewhat otherworldly-directed, and is embraced by the group as their spiritual tutor, to whom the kids quickly give their total devotion.

To be sure, Mallon does have something of the fast-talking, "snake oil salesman," "flimflam" man about him. There is no doubt about this. However, we are also given to understand that there is something very real, substantial, and formidable about him.

That is to say, the story does not give the reader the luxury of simply writing off Mallon as a "fake psychic." It is very important to keep this character complexity, about Mallon, in mind, as you read this novel.


The story, as it is given to us readers, is told from the point of view of another member of that high school group of friends: one Lee Hartwell, who, twenty years later, is a best-selling novelist.

Lee had always warily avoided Spencer Mallon. Lee never trusted him; and as a result, he had never accompanied his friends whenever they spent time with Mallon. Lee was also not with his friends and Mallon that evening in the woods. I mean: THAT EVENING IN THE WOODS!!!

In the present, Lee Hartwell has come to believe that his friends experienced something in the woods, that day, which has affected, even twisted them in some cases, in profound ways. Lee wants to know what that was, and so, gives himself the task of investigating.

A few things

Peter Straub's field is horror; and, to my knowledge, he has done one or two collaborations with Stephen King. Having said that, let me see if I can give you some idea what you will be in for, should you decide the read this book.

This is not a thriller --- as I define the term --- in that plot is not built upon a cascading mountain of interlocking events, of what I call momentous immediacy, which flow into a "shattering conclusion."

Though this is a "horror" novel, technically, this is not a horror-thriller.

This is not a suspense story --- as I define the term --- in that the protagonist is not required to do something within a specific time-window, in order to avert disaster.

This is not horror-suspense.

This is not a mystery story --- as I define the term --- in that there is no "whodunit" puzzle that needs to be solved.

This is not horror-mystery, if there is such a thing.

This is not, per se, a crime story --- as I define the term --- in that it does not concern crime committed by people, whose identities are made known to us readers from the beginning. However, you notice I said "per se."

There is an element of "crime" in the story, of the most brutal kind; and is full of "horror," in the sense of "the evil men do." You see, there is some suggestion that a "dark matter" was summoned, however briefly, that evening in the woods; and that the individual, who is the locus of this human evil (burgeoning serial killer, actually), was, somehow, a "lightning rod," or, perhaps, "amplifier" for it, the "dark matter" summoned in the woods.

I really should make a clarification here. I said, before, that the group of high school friends were spiritual seekers but not "hippies." That is true but they were influenced by the activist youth spirit of the times; but in this case, its "spiritual" activism, as opposed to political activism, obviously.

On the other hand, it is a spiritual activism of a rather passive kind. But, of course, since we are talking about a horror novel, the supposedly passive speculation into the occult has very real, tangible, concrete, and of course, active results.

You remember, "Make love not war," and the images of the "flower children" sticking flowers into the rifles of soldiers. You remember those images? "Hari Krishnas" passing out flowers at the airport. And so on and so forth.

These things were the lesser activities of a program of "consciousness-raising." The "hippies" are not to be confused or conflated with the political, student activists of the sixties, who, in some cases, actually bled for their convictions.

I mention all of this because that day in the woods, the group went into the woods, with Spencer Mallon, to do a vague ceremony to, somehow, "change the world." It is not really possible to be more specific or clear than that, even if I wanted to.

Let's continue.

To give you a fuller idea about what the novel is, I need to introduce three more terms.

When I talk about a "genre" novel, there are two terms I usually use: literary genre (literary mystery, literary suspense, literary science fiction, et al) and near-literary genre (near-literary mystery, near literary crime, and so forth).

By the way, what is "genre" fiction, as I define the term? It is different from what I think of as "literary" fiction.

First of all, for me, "literary" and "genre" are not terms of judgment. Indeed, my preference is for so-called genre literature. I don't want to go into it here, but I bet there are books you (whoever "you" might be) might call "literary," which I would unhesitatingly categorize as "genre." But that is neither here nor there.

I define a genre story as one in which a specific project needs to be carried out. That is the key thing: specificity, which can be framed as science fiction, fantasy, a thriller, mystery, crime, or suspense narrative.

A literary story, as I would have it, has no specific goal to carry out. Again, that is: the absence of specificity.

Let me tell you this: In my opinion, neither term captures the essence of Peter Straub's novel. But, as I said, he is technically a horror writer and this book is technically a horror novel.

Stay with me.

As I said, usually when I deal with genre stories, there are certain terms I roll out: near-literary and literary. More definitions are needed.

When I say something is a literary genre (crime, mystery, etc.), what I mean is that, in my opinion, you could actually remove the "genre" element from the story and still find yourself with an interesting, provocative story that holds together. So, in a sense, with these kinds of narratives, you have a "twofer."

When I say something is a near-literary genre (science fiction, fantasy, whatever), what I mean is that, in my opinion, you could very nearly, almost remove the "genre" element from the story and have an interesting story going; but you cannot quite do that. Ultimately, the story depends on its "genre" orientation to hang together, though the writing is so elegant, the characterizations are so deep, that the story appears to "straddle the line" between the genre and the literary.

Let me say this: neither term, in my opinion, properly characterizes Peter Straub's novel, A Dark Matter. It is neither literary nor near-literary.

Take this for what its worth, but this is the first time I have ever said the following: Peter Straub's novel, A Dark Matter, is what I would call a literary-genre hybrid.

What is a literary-genre hybrid?

This book is "genre," in that it is technically a "horror" novel. And we can say that because there are scenes which feature funky "horror" story special effects. But we know that "literary" literature has no problem importing the special effects from "genre" literature to tell their stories.

Does that make sense?

Mr. Straub's novel is "literary," in the sense that there really is no specific project that needs to be accomplished. Of course, there is the "project" set by the protagonists himself: to understand what happened that dreaded evening in the woods.

But simple knowledge and understanding accumulation is well within the province of "literary" fiction. And this accumulated knowledge and understanding is processed in a very personal way, of consequence to no one else.

With this novel, in my opinion, it is not a simple case of separating the "genre" element out from the story, and seeing whether or not you have a "literary" residue.

Are you following me? We can usually do that with genre literature I usually categorize as "literary" or "near-literary."

You could say, that with A Dark Matter, the "literary" becomes the "genre" and the "genre" becomes the "literary." You see the book is, among other things, a meditation on the nature of evil.

No, really it is. I know the phrase, "meditation on the nature of evil" is an overused one. In this case, however, it is true. This novel feels like the author was having a philosophical debate within himself about the ontology of evil. And the nature of evil is fit subject matter for either literary or genre literature. So that, if you wanted, you could say that the "special effects" we encounter are metaphorical.

What I'm saying is that when you pick up this book and read it, as a "horror" novel, do not expect the big (pop!) at the end; it is not coming. Again, the book is not set up that way.

Thank you for reading!


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