Peter Straub is a Wisconsinite; he was born and raised in Milwaukee and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison for his undergraduate education. He has a master’s degree from Columbia University, and at least started a Ph.D. in Dublin. He’s apparently a famous writer of poetry and horror novels; the latter have won him several Bram Stoker awards, as well as leading to several collaborations and a friendship with Stephen King. Later this year, his novel The Dark Matter will be published; as well will this novel, which is actually the same book. The Skylark is the mostly-unedited, 200-manuscript-pages-longer version, which Mr. Straub wanted preserved, so Subterranean Press is doing so.
In the mid-1960s, a group of high school friends fall under the influence of a magician-philosopher-charlatan named Spencer Mallon. The influence ends abruptly a few months later when something horrific happens, but nobody can quite determine what actually occurred. The fifth member of the group, who was not involved but was still friends with the bunch, is a famous writer, and while trying to write his memoirs, gets stuck dead at the point when the ‘something horrific’ happened. More than anything, he needs to find out what that event was, and so he finds his old friends, to figure his past out.
I had never read anything by Mr. Straub before this book, so I was unprepared when what appeared (by the back cover copy and the first hundred and some-odd pages of the book) to be a supernatural thriller similar to Graham Joyce’s Dreamside turned into a serial-killer story. I’m not a big fan of serial killers, although I’ll read other kinds of horror; demons, vampires, werewolves, and zombies don’t exist, but serial killers do, and they’re human. So I feel that I should warn readers: this book contains some fairly graphic descriptions of the early days of a serial killer or two, and as such contains violence to animals. Those who prefer not to read that sort of thing would do best to avoid this book. In truth, it’s just one section that is exceptionally creepy, but it’s enough that I’m warning about it.
That having been said, Mr. Straub is a masterful writer. He has complete control over the story, even this unedited version, and control over the various voices of different characters. He gets intensely into the mind of so many of his characters, and while many of them are unlikable (the serial killer, the thief, the grasping social climber), the others are appealing, even in an odd way (the insane guy, the luminous blind woman, the mostly-blank author-POV character, and the con man). It does appear that the women in his story are either angels or she-devils, but considering that all the characters are essentially archetypes, I won’t fault him for that.
The book is written in an interesting format; the main flashback sections of the plot (with the exception of the serial-killer section) are the various characters telling what they know about the night in question, and the events leading up to it. Most of them have different recollections of what happened, and not all of them make perfect linear sense. In these sections are where Mr. Straub’s voice-control shines, and while I’m not exactly leaping to meet most of the characters again, I did find my introductions to them quite pleasant. A little research shows that many of Mr. Straub’s main characters are writers, and although I don’t think that he particularly imbued Lee Harwell with much of his own personality, I suppose it does show that often, people do write what they know.
This is definitely a horror novel with fantastic elements, rather than being any of several other precise gradations of the field. Those who don’t generally read horror novels, or who read dark fantasy, might find this a bit too strong for their tastes. (I did.) However, it’s a fast-paced, exciting read, despite all the point-of-view switching and the fascination on one particular night, and fans of Mr. Straub’s will be quite intrigued to compare both versions. I’d recommend it to horror and serial-killer-book fans; those who liked both Darkside (Graham Joyce) and perhaps a good deal of Stephen King would enjoy this title immensely. 4.5/5 stars.