A scholar is invited to an eerie scholarly retreat in this melancholy blast from the past.
At the end of the 1980s, Peter Straub (A Dark Matter, 2010, etc.) was in a rough patch, having spent three years writing Koko (2011), a bleak story about murderous Vietnam veterans to which the author was emotionally attached. It was that loss that inspired this dreary novella, which was published in a very limited edition in 1990, and is now unleashed on the general reading public. The book is almost myopically centered on Professor William Standish, an undistinguished poetry researcher who believes a unique scholarship will provide a leg up on his career—not to mention a welcome reprieve from the daily haranguing from his pregnant wife Jean, already suffering from an early miscarriage. In short order, Standish has accepted an offer from Esswood House, a little-known British library known for supporting D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot, among others. Standish’s fascination is with a distant relative, Isobel Standish, who published a single volume of poetry in her lifetime, Crack, Whack and Wheel, in 1912. Straub does inject his characteristically subterranean sense of ordinary menace into Standish’s journey, starting with a short but near-violent encounter with the locals at a pub. “The fellow was murdered there,” the barman tells him offhandedly. Then we’re off into the labyrinthine Esswood House, tended by the even more impenetrable custodian Robert Wall. There, as Standish begins to unravel the mysteries of Isobel’s life, he starts to become a bit unraveled himself, obsessing over his wife’s impending birth and experiencing dark and disturbing visions. The writing is fine, but the story folds in on itself without ever really delivering either a genuine scare or emotional resonance. Like the novella form itself, it’s a hard act to characterize—neither a true ghost story nor an Edgar Allen Poe–like portrait of a psychological schism.
An intriguing artifact for hardcore fans but an unremarkable entry point for new readers.