This extremely creepy and disturbing novella is either a pendant to, or, more likely, an outtake from Straub’s most recent full-length novel A Dark Matter, published earlier this year.
This story focuses on that book’s ill-fated secondary character Keith Hayward during his adolescent years in Milwaukee. Keith’s disturbing misbehavior, spurred by his non-affectionate obsession with his neighbor’s pets, stirs his mother Maggie to hope her only child will benefit from the steadying influence of his frequently visiting Uncle Tillman. But, as we know from the opening pages, “Uncle Till” is a charismatic drifter whose unexplained nightly excursions have attracted the attention of local police. Nevertheless, Keith cherishes Till’s counsel that a boy soon to be a man needs “a special place” to store his secrets—and the boy’s “experiments” with animals take over his life. Straub sticks closely to Keith’s roiling thoughts, as he enters high school, where severe acne and an aura of menacing stoicism discourage would-be bullies. No such luck for his forlorn classmate Tomek Miller, whose gratitude for Keith’s “protection” knows no bounds. Soon Keith masters homosexual sadism (graphically, gratuitously described), forcing the weaker “Miller” to aid the researches he conducts in his secret room (the special place Uncle Till had urged Keith to create). Meanwhile, news reports about the reappearance of a serial murderer (“the Ladykiller”) enable Keith to recognize “the meshing of two separate calendars, his uncle’s and the murderer’s.” Keith confides his suspicions to Uncle Till, draws Miller deeper into his web, and, at Christmas, presents his mentor with the ultimate gift. The book is unquestionably an efficient nausea-inducer, but it contains many more shocks than surprises and is propelled by sexual imagery so pronounced that it usurps and dissipates the story’s horror content.
If this was an episode severed, so to speak, from the body of A Dark Matter, it’s easy to understand why. This is very, very close to Straub at his very, very worst.