OR: The Hellfire Club

A review that originally appeared in Maelstrom #9:-

The Hellfire Club by Peter Straub. Published by Harper Collins. Paperback, 588pp, £5.99.

Imagine that the authorship of Lord of the Rings was called into question, with accusations flying that Tolkien pinched the idea and much of the plot from a fellow writer, who had then vanished off the face of the earth. Such is the basic premise of Peter Straub’s latest novel, though of course the book in question is not LoTR, but an entirely fictional work called Night Journey, supposedly written in 1938 by Hugo Driver while staying at the writers’ retreat of Shorelands. The prosperity of Chancel House is founded on the success of Night Journey and if doubts about the book’s provenance are shown to be valid the family-run publishing company faces financial ruin. When Nora Chancel, wife of Davey, the family heir, is abducted by the serial killer Dick Dart, who for reasons of his own wants the past uncovered, the quest for the truth about what happened at Shorelands all those years ago begins in earnest.

Straub is a writer whose work has changed much over the years. Early books such as Julia and If You Could See Me Now were densely written chillers with the emphasis on atmosphere and psychology, in the manner of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. With later books like Ghost Story and Floating Dragon he became more accessible, moving into the blockbuster territory occupied by his compatriot Stephen King, with whom Straub collaborated on The Talisman. Most recently he seems to have abandoned the supernatural elements which used to be his stock in trade, preferring to write novels of suspense rather than horror, a trend which The Hellfire Club continues.

There is horror in this book, such as the disturbing scenes where Dick Dart rapes Nora, but while such incidents add to the overall verisimilitude of what is related they remain only peripheral to the novel’s main concerns. More properly considered this is a mystery story of that sort where the truth is buried deep in the past and the characters must be part archaeologist to unearth it, the kind of thing Robert Goddard used to do so well. Many of the features typical of such fiction are present – the madwoman safely shut away in an upstairs bedroom with her secrets, the tyrannical head of the family, the servant who is much more than he seems, the son and heir of dubious birth. Straub takes it all and mixes it up to present us with something that is by turn startlingly new and comfortingly familiar.

I have some reservations. Dick Dart is a chilling creation, the most frightening fiend since Hannibal Lecter, as one critic avows, but I can’t help feeling that alliterative name trivialises him somewhat. And I was irritated by the way in which people conveniently drop dead whenever Dick and Nora need a car. The title is something of a red herring, in that while there is an institution called the Hellfire Club in the book it is largely irrelevant to the story. Such quibbles fade into insignificance though as Straub’s masterly prose sweeps you along and revelation follows hard on the heels of revelation.

This is not Peter Straub’s best book as King claims in the cover blurb, but it is a marvellously readable story, peopled with believable characters and packed with enough twists and plot turns to keep all but the most jaded reader guessing.

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