‘Lost Boy, Lost Girl’ by Peter Straub – REVIEW

Gripped by the intense opening of this novel, I was anticipating something like a reprise of Straub’s uber-eerie classic, ‘Ghost Story’.

‘Lost Boy, Lost Girl’ turned out not to be that – either in theme or in quality. It’s not a great Peter Straub novel, but it is a good one – and, as his fans will know, that’s enough to set it head and shoulders above most novels in this genre.

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Long-standing Straub fans will also be intrigued by the appearance in this book of Tom Pasmore, a character from Straub’s ‘Mystery’, and by the author’s wholesale relocation of streets and places from the island of Mill Walk, that is the setting for ‘Mystery’, to the town of Millhaven in this novel. What is he up to? And what is this obsession with place names that start with Mill, anyway?

But to the story…It centres on Tim Underhill, a writer, and his teenage nephew, Mark, who has become obsessed with the house of a serial killer following the mysterious suicide of his mother. Events unfold through parallel narratives (one in the first person, from the point of view of Tim, the other written in the third person, focusing on Mark.) These threads interweave cleverly, although there is a drop in pace whenever the action switches to the misadventures of Mark and his best friend, Jimbo.

These twin points of view reveal the emotional complexities and deeply buried secrets revolving around the abandoned house with great detail and intensity, but one is left feeling that perhaps it has taken a lot of pages to account for relatively few actual events.

However, there is no doubting this Straub fella has a way with words, and there are some very creepy moments – like the reveal of why the rooms in the killer’s house look smaller than they should…

Good work from one of modern horror’s undoubted greats!

‘The Shade Clan’ – download a taster

“Every time he went there, Tom had the same thought: anything could be happening here and no-one would know.”

Download free tasters of The Shade Clan:

The Shade Clan – Chapter 1 excerpt
The Shade Clan – Chapter 1 excerpt 2
The Shade Clan, excerpt 3

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WE ARE SAILORS BEING LURED ONTO THE ROCKS

Have you ever met someone so beautiful it scared you a little?

This is not the fear of failing to impress, or the nervousness you feel on approaching someone you like. Talking to this person is easy, all too easy.

This person seems perfect for you; and yet, headily mixed with the excitement, is a distant terror. Is it rooted in helplessness, or inner conflict, in knowing self-deception? Haven’t you glimpsed it, this subtle dread walking hand in hand with exceptional beauty?

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Alma Mobley as depicted in the film version of Peter Straub’s ‘Ghost Story’

“The first impression I had of Alma Mobley…I felt an odd mixture of attraction and revulsion…The straight blond hair glowed. So did her pale eyes: in them I saw a kaleidoscope of shattered light and colours…She seemed beautiful in a nearly mythic way.” 1

Why are the pages of horror populated not only by monsters but also by gorgeous, perfect, alluring creatures: beauties as well as beasts. And which is more dangerous? With a monster, all you have to do is outrun it.

“Did I say she was beautiful? I was wrong. Beauty is too tame a notion…I cannot do it justice with words. Suffice it to say that it would break your heart to see her, and it would mend what was broken in the same moment…” 2

This is no modern invention. The potency of an Edward Cullen or an Alma Mobley draws on ancient archetypes. The Succubus, the Incubus, the Siren. The notion of frightening, unearthly, predatory beauty is as old as culture.

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Edward Cullen as played by Robert Pattinson

But surely the heroes and good guys are the good-looking ones! The terrifying things are those which you cannot bear to look at – the unspeakable face of the demon, the vision of torture and horror, the bogeyman.

Yes, but our relationship with the beast is a simple one, our response unambiguous – psychologists call it fight or flight. What’s far more perilous is standing mesmerised before someone so beautiful it makes you ache inside, wanting more than anything not to leave their presence, while a distant, un-heeded voice in your head is screaming, Run for your life!

You are a sailor, heading inexorably for the rocks, and loving every second of the journey.

1 Peter Straub Ghost Story.
2 Description of Caesaria Barbarossa from Clive Barker’s Galilee.

WHEN HORROR MOVED OUT OF THE CASTLE

Where would get your vote for the greatest horror novel setting of all time? Castle Dracula? The Overlook Hotel? There are many possibilities, but there’s a good chance your answer would fall into the category of ‘old, scary building’. Buildings, as containers for fear, are absolutely crucial to the darker side of literature.

Recently, I read the book that started it all. And it’s not Frankenstein or Dracula. It was written more than 80 years before Bram Stoker was born. And its author was, of all people, a Member of Parliament. Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto gave us the prototype for every old, scary building that came after.

From page one, its inhabitants are terrified by surreal goings on in its shadowy chambers. The dark corridors and echoing crypts are full of whispers and shrieks of alarm. The castle is not only a setting for inexplicable and disturbing events but almost seems to be an accomplice to them.

The Castle of Otranto caused a sensation and this one short book launched an entire genre – the gothic novel, the forerunner of all horror and paranormal fiction. The gothic castle would remain the preferred setting for this kind of macabre entertainment well into the 19th century. And it’s still a powerful archetype today, even if sometimes in a tamer, friendlier form; isn’t Hogwarts just the Castle of Otranto echoing to the shouts of a rowdy school party?

Over time, the action moved into more modest, domestic surroundings. Which was lucky for writers in countries like America, where the only castles are the concrete and fibreglass ones belonging to Mr Disney. The vampires, spectres and monsters deigned to slum it in houses – as long as they were large, old and rambling. In Salem’s Lot, Stephen King places the Marsten House at the absolute heart of his narrative. It becomes almost a character in its own right, influencing events. This “beacon of evil” is not just the place where the vampire Barlow happens to end up – he has been drawn there, attracted by this powerful magnet of darkness.

So by the late 20th century horror had largely move out of the castle. Terror had down-sized. That’s perhaps because while the writers (and many of the readers) of 18th and 19th century gothic novels had occupied the upper echelons of society, modern writers tended to be ordinary people, living in ordinary houses, in ordinary towns.

This democratising of dark fiction had one very important and powerful side-effect: it brought it closer to us all; it brought it to streets and houses like our own, to our doorstep. And any psychologist will tell you that fictional narratives have a much greater impact on audiences if they happen against familiar backdrops.

Ancient battlements and secret passageways are all very well but they are not part of everyday experience for most of us. The horror that dwells in that empty house on the edge of your town is much more potent, relevant and harder to forget.