A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #27:-
Harper Collins pb, 335pp, £9.99
After the merely average pleasures of The Hellfire Club, this collection, consisting of two superb novellas, ‘Porkpie Hat’ and ‘Mr Clubb and Mr Cuff’ (reviewed in previous issues of TTA, so no need to wax lyrical on their account), plus five long stories, sees Straub back at the top of his form with a showcase volume containing some of the finest writing he’s produced.
‘Ashputtle’ takes the story of Cinderella back to its sinister roots, with a deranged teacher murdering the youngsters left in her charge in a narrative that effortlessly blends dream and reality, madness and sanity. A more realistic note is struck with the ironically titled ‘Isn’t It Romantic?’, a story set in the murky world of espionage, with a veteran intelligence operative on his last assignment and playing the odds to come out on the other side unscathed, all a bit familiar perhaps and certainly the weakest here, but for all that well written and enjoyable. ‘The Haunted Village’ returns to Vietnam pre-Koko, recording an incident that bears witness to the essentially outré quality of that place and time. Straub explores old themes in ‘Bunny is Good Bread’, for my money the best story in the book, a grim and harrowing account of the childhood of a serial killer, one that, with its powerful images of abuse and religious mania, makes the reader care deeply about this poor, tormented child, even as we recoil from the terrible thing that he becomes. Finally there’s ‘Hunger, an Introduction’, a remarkable exercise in tone of voice, the monologue of a whining, self-pitying ghost culminating in a revelation about the true nature of the afterlife.
Those familiar with Straub won’t need convincing. Those new to his work can ask for no better introduction than Magic Terror.