Filler content with lost children

Here’s a little something from The Third Alternative #37:-


Harper Collins hb, 281pp, £17.99

After the large scale of his last few novels Straub adopts a more minimalist approach for this book, which also marks a return to the classic ghost story fiction with which he first made his name, though with a serial killer subtext. In fact in many ways it seems to be a resume of his career so far, with places and people, themes and ideas that will be familiar to long time admirers of Straub’s work.

WriterTimUnderhill, of Koko fame, returns to his hometown of Millhaven to attend the funeral of his sister-in-law, who committed suicide for no apparent reason. While there he notices the strange behaviour of his nephew Mark, who later disappears after sending Tim an enigmatic e-mail. Tim returns to his hometown yet again, this time to help his brother cope. Millhaven is being terrorised by the Sherman Park Killer, a serial killer who preys on young people, and it is feared Mark is the latest victim. Intercut with this, in flashback, is the story of Mark’s fascination with the old house opposite where he lives and its strange occupants, a beautiful young girl and a sinister man. Tim learns that the house once belonged to Millhaven’s first serial killer, a man called Kalendar who was related to Mark’s mother. Kalendar turned the house into a maze with hidden rooms in which to torment his victims, and many of its horrors remained undiscovered to the present day. Tim follows the same trail of clues that so bewitched his nephew, all relating to events that happened many years ago, while at the same time investigating the modern day case of the Sherman Park Killer with the help of his old friend Tom Pasmore, an ‘armchair’ detective of great renown who previously appeared in Straub’s novel Mystery. While the present day investigation proves amenable to logic that concerning what happened in the past is more intractable, with the revelation of a terrible secret and the hint of troubled spirits finally achieving rest, all put over in terms that remain ambiguous.

This is a beautifully written book, as one would expect from a writer of Straub’s stature, packed with perfectly drawn images of strangeness and delicately fashioned hooks to grab the reader and draw him in to its story. The various strands of plot fit seamlessly together, so that in retrospect everything that happens seems perfectly logical, and yet this is a book that constantly surprises, with one shock coming hard on the heels of another. Evocation of place has always been one of the author’s strengths, and it’s used to full advantage here, with Millhaven, a small city that has fallen on hard times, along the way losing both civic pride and its sense of identity, becoming Nowheresville USA, brought to depressing life on the page, its beleaguered citizens driven close to despair at the monster who walks their windswept streets, while the Kalendar house itself is surely one of the most memorable residences in recent Horror fiction, depicted with an intensity and sense of dire foreboding that lingers in the mind, its dark secrets and tragic past reflected in the souls of those who set foot within its walls. Another certain pleasure is Straub’s gift for characterisation, particularly seen in his depiction of Mark and his friend Jimbo, two young men on the verge of the great adventure that is life, open to all its possibilities for wonder and dismissive of the dangers that lurk in ambush, until they too find themselves with backs against the wall. Their relationship is perhaps mirrored in that between Tim and his resentful under-achiever of a brother, the one who went away and made a place for himself in the world and the other who stayed behind, preferring to maintain his grasp on the already attained rather than risk reaching out for more. At bottom this is a novel of the possible, with Mark’s quest for a beauty and love that seems unattainable the key note, a metaphor for all the hopes and dreams that we abandon over the course of a lifetime. Perhaps he is not the lost boy of the title at all. Perhaps it is all the rest of us who are lost. It’s a thought.

You come away from this book feeling that you have been entertained and informed by a master. Highly recommended.

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