The veteran horror writer’s circuitous 16th outing (stories: Magic Terror, 2000, etc.).
A suburban mom’s suicide, a spooky abandoned house, and a teenager’s unwitting pursuit of the truth about “one of the nation’s livelier serial killers”—such are the ingredients here. They’re pieced together, after a fashion, by successful NYC novelist Tim Underhill (first seen in Koko, 1988), who’s summoned to the midwestern town of Millhaven by his brother Philip, a misanthropic high school vice-principal. Tim learns that his teenaged nephew Mark has found his mother Nancy dead in her bathtub. Following this essentially straightforward setup, the novel breaks apart into alternations of present action with flashbacks, experienced and relayed through various characters’ viewpoints, Tim’s “journal,” and an omniscient narrative voice only intermittently firmly distinguished from Tim’s own. The central action is Mark’s exploration (initially abetted by best pal Jimbo) of the uninhabited house directly behind his own—a house, we’re asked to believe, that Mark had scarcely noticed (!) prior to his mother’s suicide. Its secrets—sharply imagined and brimming with promising narrative menace—have to do with Nancy Underhill’s first cousin Joseph Kalendar, a serial rapist, child abuser, and murderer. As the intrepid Mark (a sweet-natured golden boy whose stunning good looks are rather creepily overstressed) keeps uncovering nauseating things, Tim and Philip and involved local authorities (aided by Detective Tom Pasmore, on loan from Mystery, 1989, and The Throat, 1993) also zero in on Kalendar’s horrific legacy. The fates of adolescent boys lured away by a malign sexual predator are painstakingly, laboriously connected to that of a “lost girl” (herself an otherworldly seductive force) who “haunts” those who failed to save her. And, in a nod to Straub’s sometime collaborator Stephen King, Tim realizes that (à la King’s The Dark Half) his own literary creations may have assumed lethal form.
Strikingly imagined indeed, but the zigzag structure blurs the momentum and effect of what might have been one of Straub’s best.