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by Elizabeth Hand

Mr. X by Peter Straub
Random House, 1999, $25.95

Pork Pie Hat by Peter Straub
Orion Books (London), 1999, 6.99

Peter and PTR: Two Deleted Prefaces and an Introduction by Peter Straub
Subterranean Press, P.O. Box 190106, Burton, MI 48519, 1999, $10 (includes shipping)

Dying is easy. Comedy is hard. Writing a halfway decent, full-length horror novel is really, really hard. Despite the prevalence of books by Stephen King, Anne Rice, Dean R. Koontz, Dan Simmons, and yes, Peter Straub, the number of truly fine supernatural novels produced in the last twenty or so years can probably be counted upon one hand; maybe two, if you're minus a finger like the guy in The 39 Steps. I would name these books as follows: The Girl in a Swing, by Richard Adams, The Vampire Lestat, by Anne Rice, Falling Angel, William Hjortsberg, Bag of Bones, Stephen King, Signs of Life, M. John Harrison, Flicker, Theodore Roszak, Beauty, Brian D'Amato, The Owl Service, Alan Garner, The Prestige by Christopher Priest (a novel some critics have insisted is really sf), and now Peter Straub's Mr. X.

Obviously any list of this type is going to be subjective, and I have already stuffed cotton in my ears against the wails of those multitudes who have insulated their homes with paperback editions of The Stand. To be even more subjective, I'll state here that of these novels, perhaps only The Girl in a Swing and Signs of Life could stand with the very best supernatural tales ever written; and this is quite a feat because those other, truly great tales are not novels at all but shorter works. Mr. X comes very, very close, yet doesn't quite make the cut; but Straub's Pork Pie Hat, a novella specially commissioned for a UK series called the Criminal Records series, ranks right up there with the likes of Oliver Onions's "The Beckoning Fair One" and Marion Crawford's "The Screaming Skull" and Robert Aickman's "Ringing the Changes."

In supernatural fiction, as in life, size matters; but Big is rarely---if ever---Better.

The ideal length for a supernatural story is probably that of the novella, or novelet (very occasionally the noveleeny); short stories are too, well, short. A notable (very) short exception is William Harvey's "August Heat," and there are others, including quite a few by Saki and, of course, W. W. Jacobs's "The Monkey's Paw"; but the very greatest and most influential horror story ever written is a short novel, "Heart of Darkness," and I would name as runners-up two other novellas, Arthur Machen's "The Great God Pan" and "The White People."

Perspicacious readers will note that most of these tales have a somewhat musty ancestry, even if they don't quite fit into the classic antiquarian mode epitomized by the works of M. R. James. Again, this is very much a matter of taste, but it reflects I think a genuinely declining taste for what I still consider ghost stories: even the goriest and most successful of them remain ghost stories in their deepest darkest hearts, and even the most successful of them are probably going the way of the Edsel, silent films, vinyl recordings, and network television. Movies spoiled written horror by setting up a model of escalating expectations and diminishing returns. Written horror set about to imitate its more popular younger sibling, with the end result being an entire demonic step-family right out of a John Waters movie by way of John Shirley, a lot of noise and flash but very little in the way of a genuine frisson of fear: Doctor Terror's House of Hubbub.

And yet, and yet---and yet despite all of this, good supernatural books get written, and sometimes great ones. Peter Straub's Ghost Story was one of the former. A trope on Machen's "The Great God Pan" (which also inspired M. John Harrison's very fine The Course of the Heart), Ghost Story was an elegant, elegiacal book that honored not just its immediate source material but the entire tradition of formalist, primarily English, ghost stories. Ultimately it collapsed under the weight of so many traditions---revenants, shapeshifters, succubi, paranormal children---but Ghost Story was a huge commercial success that did not hide its more highbrow literary ambitions and influences---not just Machen but Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Edith Wharton. The eight novels he has written since then (one, The Talisman, with Stephen King) have cemented Straub's reputation as our finest supernatural stylist, and have as well continued to occupy enviable positions on the bestseller lists.

Mr. X is better than any of his previous books, including Ghost Story: a thrilling tour-de-force as beautifully and intricately constructed as a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. It is a tale of doppelgangers, like Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Christopher Priest's The Prestige. Unlike those books, Straub's is a wholly American tale, one that feels entirely new. Its setting is not the lushly rotting vistas of Southern gothic writers like Faulkner or Anne Rice or Flannery O'Connor, though there are powerful southern influences at work; nor is it the even more familiar New England neo-noir that has become North America's backyard boneyard, thanks to the work of Stephen King, Algernon Blackwood (okay, "The Wendigo" is set in Canada, but close enough), Thomas Tryon, and H. P. Lovecraft. Mr. X is set in a Southern Illinois town called Edgerton. A small city that becomes as populous and memorable as Arkham or Dunwich or Castle Rock, Edgerton is quite simply one of the most wonderfully realized places in fantastic literature, right up there with Edgewood in John Crowley's Little, Big, or Stephen King's Derry, Maine. The characters in Mr. X are various and complex (at least one of them is both various and complex all by himself), but all of them seem sprung from Edgerton as from some brilliantly-colored, hypnotically churning whirlpool, and at the novel's end it is Edgerton that stains your dreams, as much as any of its populace.

The tale opens with Ned Dunstan hitchhiking back to Edgerton to see his mother, Valerie (known as Star), who is dying. Ned is a few days away from his thirty-fifth birthday, an event he is not looking forward to. Since he was three years old, Ned's birthdays have been marked by a series of terrifying apparitions of a murderous figure he thinks of as Mr. X. To his adopted families--- Star put her son into foster care at birth---Ned's experiences appear as seizures; but to Ned (and the reader) they are utterly real. Also preternaturally real is Ned's lifelong sense of an Other, a shadow- self that may or may not be linked to Mr. X. When Star dies in hospital, Ned's stay in Edgerton is extended so that he can attend the funeral. This gives him the chance to spend some more time with Star's eccentric great-aunts and their hangers-on, a family that puts various Snopeses, Addamses, and Starkadders to shame. What Anne Rice's vampires are to New Orleans, the Dunstans are to Edgerton, but I would not bet on Lestat winning out over Great-Aunt Joy, whether or not her sweet potato pie was on the menu that night.

Ned's enforced stay also sends him in search of his biological father, who turns out to have more in common with H. P. Lovecraft than one might desire in a paterfamilias. Lovecraft casts a long and complicated and mordantly funny shadow over both Mr. X, the novel, as well as Mr. X, the nasty guy in the black hat. We learn early on that the youthful X has been vouchsafed his powers by mysterious figures he believes are gods; when a copy of The Dunwich Horror falls into his bloodstained hands, he realizes they are in fact, his ancestors. "The Providence Master" becomes his spiritual mentor, to the extent that the young X embroiders his staggeringly successful life of crime with a few tatty artistic threads---the horrible, horribly bad stories collected in a self- published collection titled From Beyond: Tales of the Unknown by Edward Rhinehart. In Mr. X's single funniest sequence, Ned Dunstan reads from a bit of his father's work---
"Darkness over Ephraim's Landing" ended with this sentence: *As the bells of St. Arnulf's chimed, I burst upon the sacrosanct chamber and by the flickering light of my upraised candle glimpsed the frothing monstrosity which had once been Fulton Chambers crawl, with hideous alacrity, into the drain!"
Mr. X becomes more and more complex---Byzantine, labyrinthine, dizzying---as it nears its close. The shadow-selves multiply, along with clues to identity, until the reader finds herself gazing into a hall of mirrors, dazzled. And in its final sentence, Mr. X leaves one with the sense that yet another face, shadowy, hitherto unseen, awaits in the gathering darkness.

If Mr. X is wonderful, Pork Pie Hat is just about perfect. Hat, a legendary jazz musician (modelled on Lester Young), gives a nightlong interview to a young graduate student. Years later, after Hat has died, the student extracts one tale from the tapes and presents it here: a Halloween story of very real malevolence and power, whose true meaning, again, becomes evident only in Pork Pie Hat's last pages. The supernatural overtones are ambiguous (as in "Heart of Darkness") and ultimately irrelevant. Pork Pie Hat may be a slender volume, but it is not a minor work: fluid, elegant, haunting, its seventy-three pages pack more genuine terror than nine-tenths of what passes for horror fiction these days.
"'Most people will tell you growing up means you stop believing in Halloween things---I'm telling you the reverse. You start to grow up when you understand that the stuff that scares you is part of the air you breathe.'"
Finally, Peter and PTR: Two Deleted Prefaces and an Introduction, is a small press pamphlet containing just those things. It sheds a few more rays upon Mr. X, both its genesis and execution, as well as adding a few more pages to the oeuvre of Straub's sometime hagiographer and bete noir, Popham College's professor of popular culture, Putney Tyson Ridge. Ridge's commentary upon Mr. X, in particular, will be of interest to anyone interested in the eternal tug- of-war between art and academe, substance and shadow.

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