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Madison in the 60s only more phantasmagorical
on May 6, 2010
Peter Straub's latest novel of the unreal and macabre "A Dark Matter," is among many things a head trip back to Madison and the University of Wisconsin campus during the chaotic and violent 60s. Like the two non-fiction books "Rads" by Tom Bates and David Maraniss' "They Marched into Sunlight," this novel drops you smack dab into the anti-Vietnam street protests and the bombing of the UW's Sterling Hall, tear gas and billy clubs, burning street barricades. It's a trek back in time to "Miffland" the center of campus unrest in Madison.
As the master of horror, Straub heaps on all things phantasmagorical.
Lee Harwell is a well-know novelist struggling with his next book. A random encounter in a Chicago coffee shop gets him thinking back to an occult ceremony in 1966 in Madison in which four of his high school friends hook up with a charismatic shaman-like itinerant named Spencer Mallon, who by whim or will ends up opening a door to hell and changes all their lives forever.
Hootie Bly has been institutionalized since, communicating by quoting from Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter." Eel Truax, who is now married to Harwell, has gone blind. Life has turned out strangely for different reasons for Jason Boatman and Dilly Olson. Another participant, a Mallon hanger-on, was found dead, grotesquely mauled, in the meadow where the incident had taken place under the eye of the moon. Otherworldly, ungodly goings-on have occurred.
Harwell gathers the participants together and each presents his or her version of events. And thereby lies the tale. Each telling is different and the pieces only add up if you're able to connect to and are easily swayed by things very far out, supernatural and unearthly. Don't, for instance, give this book as a gift to an accountant or engineer.
"A Dark Matter" is a tale of horror, slight on the horror. Straub is one of the genre's best stylists. This book is among his best from that side of the book shelf. Some sections are constructed of words piled wondrously against one another. But it's also ponderous and simply confusing rather than metaphorical or even scary. When it's all said and done, Straub has done a better job in other novels of weaving his spell.