This article is by Douglas Wynne, author of Cthulhu Blues. (Purchase A Dark Matter here.)
In this ongoing series we are revisiting contemporary novels either directly influenced by H.P. Lovecraft or at least exhibiting an affinity for his themes. In the first installment, we looked at Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane as an example of where HPL’s cosmic conceptions have broken into the mainstream and the bestseller list since his death. Today, let’s examine a longer novel by a modern master of horror in which Lovecraftian themes loom large: A Dark Matter by Peter Straub.
Peter Straub has not been shy about singing Lovecraft’s praises over the years, particularly in his role as editor of the Library of America edition of Lovecraft’s Tales. And yet, in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, he states that Lovecraft “probably had only a minimal influence on my own work.”
If you click the above link and read that brief interview, you’ll see that after being impressed by “The Dunwich Horror” at an early age, Straub went through phases of dismissing Lovecraft as his tastes became more literary. But with each return to the material, his respect for it grew. I can only speculate to what extent his deep dive into Lovecraft for the Library of America collection may have influenced the occult horror novel he wrote five years later, but A Dark Matter was heralded at the time as Straub’s return to supernatural horror after an impressive run of crime, suspense, and mystery novels.
A Dark Matter is anything but a straight ahead supernatural horror story. Yes, it cribs some of its devices from Lovecraft’s spellbook, but it does so with a structural complexity and nuance of character that is often lacking in occult fiction. And it’s in this juxtaposition of cosmic horror with a cast of characters living troubled lives detailed with enough quirks to make them feel utterly real, that Straub achieves real magic.
The trope that became a staple of horror literature after Stephen King’s It—that of a group of kids who experience a horror they must again confront in adulthood—is here given a more sophisticated rendition. Our narrator, Lee Harwell, is a novelist living in modern New York City. When a mentally disturbed man starts ranting in his favorite breakfast joint, something is jogged in Lee’s memory, and he becomes fixated on revisiting a life-altering experience his high school friends had at the University Wisconsin at Madison in 1966. His investigations into the “dark matter” lead him through a series of interviews with the surviving friends (including his then girlfriend, now wife) who were present on the night when a wandering guru named Spencer Mallon performed a ritual in the university’s agronomy meadow.
All were profoundly affected by what they saw in the magic circle, and yet no two of those present witnessed the same thing. In revisiting the event, Lee Harwell encounters a kaleidoscope of different perspectives. And while it may be up for grabs how much influence Lovecraft had on the novel, Straub has stated that it wasn’t until after writing the first draft that he realized he was using the Rashomon effect, named for Akira Kurosawa’s film (1950) to describe a retelling of the same event through divergent points of view, with the facts of the matter eluding objective analysis. Each witness to the ritual saw something different, but all saw images and entities described in a book which none of them had read: Henry Cornelius Agrippa’s Of Magical Ceremonies (1565). Unlike the fictional Necronomicon, Agrippa’s tome is a historical grimoire, and its pantheon of phantasmagoric characters lends an injection of deep weirdness to A Dark Matter.
I mentioned King earlier. It could be that these two giants of horror literature will be forever entwined in my mind following their collaborations on The Talisman and Black House, but A Dark Matter also has something in common with King’s semi-experimental collection Hearts In Atlantis, wherein the 60s zeitgeist is examined through a filter of weird fiction. Police clash with demonstrators near the campus on the day of the meadow ritual, and there is a sense that the social tensions and psychic energy of the decade are boiling over, building up to some dark climax. When it comes, could it be something unleashed by a half-competent magician, witnessed only by a gathering of adolescents in an empty field?
It could be argued that A Dark Matter lacks an overt villain in Spencer Mallon, whose origin story appears in the short tale “Mallon the Guru,” recently published in Straub’s collection Interior Darkness. There, an Indian guru detecting Mallon’s raw magical talent tells him, “I advise you to take great, great care in everything you do. But it would be wisest if you did nothing at all.” By the time of the novel, Mallon’s motives have more to do with bedding college girls and leeching off the trickle down economics of America’s college campuses than any lofty spiritual goals, but—like some real world antagonists I can think of—he believes in his own narcissistic sales pitch and has amassed enough power for his ignorance to do real damage.
Decades later, one of Mallon’s followers has spent his life in a mental institution (Hootie Bly), one has gone blind (Lee Truax), one is an ex-con (Dilly Olson), one a hardcore criminal (Jason Boatman), and one a Senator’s wife (Meredith Bright). Beyond this core group, two older boys from the college were also drawn to the guru. Brett Milstrap vanished into another dimension, but perhaps the most interesting unfulfilled destiny remains that of Keith Hayward, who would have become a serial killer had he not been slain by a monster at the climax of the ritual. If that sounds like a list of spoilers, it isn’t the facts but rather how they’re told, retold, and endowed with shifting meaning that gives the story its power.
Keith Hayward’s dark drives are presented as one of the nested stories within the novel, but are relayed in greater detail in the companion novella, A Special Place.
As adults, the characters don’t face the horrors of their youth again except through the telling. In their ruminations on the event and its echoes the novel achieves a kind of resonance that is usually unsettling, but at times oddly illuminating. Conceptions of good and evil give way to the tantalizing notion that the forces Mallon summoned brought no grand cosmic design into contact with his acolytes, but rather acted as blind energies, affecting each according to the quality of his or her consciousness; the color of that character’s lens, if you will.
The moral ambiguity skews more toward Lovecraft than King. There are emotional resolutions and moments of epiphany for the characters, but the story is also infused with a pervasive sense that things are askew, that there is more meaning lurking under the surface that we might glimpse if only we could adjust the focus a little. Our protagonist, Lee Harwell—who viewed Spencer Mallon’s shtick with skepticism even as a teen and avoided being pulled into the guru’s orbit—is married to Lee Truax, who gradually loses her vision over the years following the event. Their friends call them “the twins” and refer to the female Lee as “the eel” to differentiate them. The double name is the kind of choice that could be distracting for readers, but it also sets an odd harmonic ringing throughout the story, almost suggesting that the narrator’s wife—the most sensitive of the witnesses—is a sort of mirror image of the one character who intentionally put blinders on at the time, and remained blind to the experiences of those he loved for over forty years.
Names aren’t the only area where Straub plays sly tricks with language. Howard “Hootie” Bly, who spends those decades in a psychiatric hospital, is unable to speak with his own words after the ritual, and relies on quotes from books he has memorized as his sole means of communication. Among these are The Scarlet Letter and a dictionary of obscure words that Hootie’s mother provides to his psychiatrist as a means of translating him. In one example of an entry from the dictionary, the doctor mentions the word anabiotic in relation to Hootie: thought to be dead, but capable of being brought back to life. A nugget that reminds me of another Howard who possessed a vast and archaic vocabulary.
A Dark Matter stitches together elements of crime and detective fiction, the marital issues of literary fiction, and the texture of a bygone era, with cosmic horror bleeding through the seams. But the quote that best crystalizes the prominent Lovecraftian themes comes from Meredith Bright, who has used what she learned about power to become a senator’s wife. In reference to an elusive group of dog-headed men who stalked Mallon’s disciples over the years, she observes that they “were not dogs or ‘agents’ or anything of the kind. They were what kept us from seeing that which we are not equipped to see. All these Mallon people were marked now, and the ‘dogs’ kept an eye on them, not to keep them safe, because they cared nothing for human beings—Meredith thought they saw people as garbage—but to ensure that none of them got so far out of line again. Meredith had seen the dog-things advance toward the eternal, chaotic realm, and she knew what they really looked like, but she could not, not ever, describe them. It wasn’t possible. Our words don’t go that far, sorry.”
That’s okay. Peter Straub’s words go more than far enough to immerse his readers in the uncharted and unsettling territory that lies beyond a magic circle in a Wisconsin meadow.
This article is by Douglas Wynne, author of Cthulhu Blues. (Purchase A Dark Matter here.)
This is a great write up, possibly the best I’ve seen on the book. I feel this is undoubtedly Straub’s most misunderstood novel—and I include myself in misunderstanding it, as I feel I was too young and not versed well enough in the cosmic horror genre to truly grasp it upon my first reading. So I’ve decided I’m going to read it again soon, and this writeup has doubly convinced me it’s worth it.
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Wow, fantastic take on the novel.I ahven’t read it in years but you brought back all those mysteries for me. I’ll have to add this to my re-read pile.