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Straub's first collection of short fiction--two reprinted stories, two new ones, two original novellas, and seven connective sketches--reflecting his elegant, hard-edged approach to horror both psychological (Koko) and occult (Ghost Story, etc.). The sketches scarcely warrant notice, gray mood pieces as short as one paragraph detailing a woman watching a weeping man, a Vietnam vet living a hermetic life, a man visiting his old neighborhood, etc. The reprints (which open the book), however, still demand attention--""Blue Rose"" (from The Cutting Edge, 1986), a kind of prelude to Koko and a painfully violent tale about a budding young sadist who uses hypnotism to torture and then kill his younger brother; and ""The Juniper Tree"" (from Prime Evil, 1988), a graphic story about a boy who finds horror--child abuse--within the magic kingdom of the local movie palace. Of the two new stories: ""Something About a Death, Something About a Fire,"" is a short, pretentious tale about a miraculous taxi (""one of the first stories i wrote,"" Straub admits); but ""A Short Guide to the City"" is the collection's masterpiece: a sly, ever-more disturbing tour through an unnamed city rotting with violence and poverty. The novellas, too, differ in quality. ""The Buffalo Hunter"" is a bizarre, disjointed tale of a Manhattan misfit whose drift into holy madness (lining his bedroom walls with baby bottles, succumbing to moments of mystical clarity) skids into the fatally fantastic as he begins to enter the worlds of the novels he reads. Far more cogent and involving is ""Mrs. God,"" a firstrate haunted-house tale (in which a Yank academic encounters malevolent shades in an English manor) whose stylish narrative is marred only by its patent (and admitted, in the afterword) imitation of the classically allusive ghost stories of the late Robert Aickman. United by Straub's persistent theme of a violent transformative power lurking within the mundane, these tales (receiving a first printing of 150,000) lack the emotional push of his best novels but still fascinate: glittering shards from one of the most artful of contemporary horror writers.

Pub Date: Nov. 9th, 1990
Publisher: Dutton