Peter Straub is an intellectual horror writer. He writes stories that are multilayered with meta, self-referential within and between themselves, and take the reader for a real ride into the deep psychology of his characters.
However, I wouldn’t say love his books, but I do like his complex intellectualized horror writing…with the caveat being, the women in his novels suck bilgewater. They’re just so cliche that I crack my teeth from clenching my jaw so hard, sometimes.
lost boy, lost girl and In The Night Room are companion books. They aren’t sequels, exactly, but they explore the same story. Tim Underhill isn’t the most reliable of narrators. Is what he writing The Truth? Or the truth as he sees it? Is the truth always necessary to process pain?
In lost boy, lost girl Tim Underhill is summoned back to his hometown of Millhaven for the funeral of his sister-in-law Nancy Underhill, who killed herself in the bathtub after learning a horrible fact about her family. But her death is only the precusor to the disappearance a week later of her son, 15 year old Mark. Serial killers abound in Millhaven. If you’ve read Straub’s earlier books Koko, Mystery, and The Throat, you’ll have already had your first introduction to Millhaven and its sinful, crime filled past. Miss Marple would have had a ball in Underhill’s hometown. It’s had a huge run on serial killers.
After Mark’s disappearance Tim Underhill begins investigating the house kitty-cornered from his brother’s house, and discovers its horrible past, and the even more horrible man who originally lived in it. This horrible, unbalanced sociopath, a cousin to Nancy Underhill, had a secret daughter whom he tortured and may have murdered. Tim Underhill believes that Mark Underhill may have somehow connected with her in death. He would like to believe that. But is it truth?
In the Night Room is where this story becomes really whacked. Underhill is still processing the disappearance/deaths of Nancy and Mark Underhill. He becomes haunted–literally–by Joseph Kalender, the murderer of the little girl in the previous book. Underhill was wrong, the ghost tells him, his daughter is still alive because he loved her, even as he tortured her.
As Underhill goes on a quest to find this daughter, a mysterious woman appears who is being chased by murderous thugs. Is she real? She is, and she isn’t. She is the most prominent female role, next to the gatekeeper you meet later on. The main question with her is, how much is she her own person, or is she a part of Underhill’s psyche? Is she completely fictional? Or not? Are the internet ghosts Underhill keeps getting emails real? They could be projections of his mind.
Straub’s women tend to take roles of sirens, or avenging angels, or temptresses. Although he’s a very complex writer, he seems to have difficulty getting into the heads of women. Although Nancy Underhill kills herself, she feels glossed over and once Underhill discovers the apparent reason (or was it?) for her suicide, I wasn’t convinced that a horrible family history would make someone do that. As far I, the reader, know, nothing terrible happened directly to her. But guilt? Complicity? Perhaps. We don’t know because Tim Underhill probably doesn’t know, and if he did, he might not tell the reader the truth of her death (as if anyone *could*, about a suicide).
There’s also the problem of Willy Brice Patrick, the mysterious woman from In The Night Room. She is very much a creature of Underhill’s imagination. She’s there to be his impetus, his muse, his lover, his stand-in for Lily Kalender, the possibly murdered cousin of Nancy Underhill.
And then there’s Lily Kalender-she’s the quest object. She’s the mysterious being. Is she alive? Or dead? Does she still need rescuing or is she beyond that? And who is Tim Underhill actually rescuing? He was never able to save his murdered sister (who died when she was 11 and he was 9). His life is full of ghosts.
Although I’d score Straub’s books low on the woman-as-her-own-agent scale, they are fascinating reads (if you don’t mind serial killers popping out of the woodwork) with complex plots, and they do keep you guessing if you really think about what could be and what might not be real.