Jul/Aug 2004 Book Reviews

lost boy lost girl

Peter Straub
Random House (2003) 281 pages
* * ½

reviewed by Kevin McGowin

I don't know much about genre "horror" novels, but the early reviews accorded Peter Straub's latest volume such high marks that I got a copy and read it. I didn't read the reviews themselves—and never do if I think I might read a book myself—but the blurbs, from highly-respected national publications, suggested that with this book, Straub had outdone himself and everybody else, and that, moreover, he'd somehow transcended the genre. So, taking all the spin with a shaker of pepper, and thinking snobbishly how no genre is hard to "transcend" anyway, I noticed while in the store that he'd already done so by writing a "horror" novel literally the width of my thumbnail.

Not that it should've been longer. It's highly distilled, and Straub is often funny and often very subtle, but what he's distilling and what he's being subtle about are the problematic issues here. When I finished the novel (shortly after I'd started it, it seemed), I distilled my own thoughts in a rather exasperated, "What's the big deal?" For me, a novel like The Secret Agent by Conrad, for instance, is a great deal scarier.

But maybe lblg isn't supposed to be scary. If it's remarkable, it's because Straub seems to attempt to parody every convention of the genre down to its clichéd and ultimately silly essence in less than 250 pages. Which he just about does, with a bored sort of bitterness that makes one wonder why a man who's redefined a timeworn genre (in the opinion of many) and made quite a good living from it wishes to essentially replicate the screenplay of Scary Movie (or something) in prose. But every parody must ultimately add something of merit to the thing being parodied, must somehow better it, to succeed. This is the only way to show the speciousness of the original, and Straub fails because smug and curmudgeonly observations by his narrator do not spark the blandness of the novel's narrative into a rollicking scherzo. Am I the only reviewer out there to read it this way because I'm the only reviewer of the book who hasn't read Peter Straub? I don't know, could be. Maybe for some people, self-parody equates to excellence. Well, maybe in Measure for Measure, but the self-parody in my own work turned out to be deplorable.


lost boy lost girl is the story of New York horror novelist Tim Underhill (Peter Straub, one guesses) who returns to his hometown of Milltown (Milwaukee) after his brother's wife commits suicide. Tim takes a liking to his adolescent nephew Mark (Peter Straub—he makes all this clear on his website, which the dust jacket of the book encourages us to visit), who becomes obsessed with the house behind his own. The house turns out to be the haunted death-chamber where his maternal uncle tortured and killed adolescent boys, stuff like that; it has trap doors and all. The uncle was killed in prison, but another serial killer has bought the place and has set up shop in there; he has his eye on Mark, too, but the latter is saved and taken to the Spirit World after having delicious, blissful sex with the grown-up ghost of his dead first-cousin Lily on the steel bed where both killers torture(d) and kill(ed) their victims. Tim solves the crime with the help of a local computer geek/friend. Lots of people are dead (oh, Mark's mom offed herself because she was being haunted by Lily after refusing to take her in) but not Mark, who's safe in a better world—or is he?

That's just part of it, too. Yeah, it's a lot for so short a book. Enough to convolute it. But see how all the stock elements are there? A crime solved by a novelist (didn't Miss Marple/Dame Agatha used to do that?), hauntings by a child, hidden compartments in a haunted house, true-crime gore, sex with a beautiful ghost (even Poe used that one). Yes, Straub's piling-on is deliberate, as are other elements, and he wants us to know it, even the least-attuned of us.

There is not a rounded character in the book, nor is there intended to be in a book like this. But there really is a substantial difference between single-dimensional characters and bad comic book characters. Just look at your neighbors. Phillip, Tim's brother and Mark's father, is the most over-the-top: a real insensitive ass, to say the least, yet one finds it difficult to hate (or take seriously enough to dislike) a character who makes the things in Dickens' Pickwick Papers look about as complex as Hamlet. The murderer isn't even interesting in a surface-deep, Hannibal Lector kind of way. He's just Dark and Bad.

And the two main characters, Mark and of course Tim (who I hear has been in several other Straub books) are hardly deeper, which is almost strange since part of the reason to make the bad simply Bad is to highlight the valor and likeability of the Good. Mark is such a caricature of an average mid-American skateboarding horny Eminem-digging teen one's almost relieved to see him disappear; one more recounted conversation between him and his equally one-dimensional "sidekick" Jimbo ("Yo. Fuck you!") and I've nodded out at page 58. And Uncle Tim's no deeper, really, though he's older and gets a couple of funny lines as sometimes-narrator: "With some portion of the relief experienced by a man recovering from an addiction to a bad love or a seductive drug, Mark went back inside to have a glass of milk and a bowl of Chex" (p. 76) and, "Once you take someone's word about an invisible man, you are playing with his racquet on his court, and it is no use pretending otherwise" (p. 142).

Lines like these show Straub's sense of humor and suggest that he's writing with tongue firmly in cheek. Taken with the brilliant, evocative writing and pitch-perfect dialogue in chapter 15, which opens the third of the book's four sections and foregrounds the elder Underhill's lives by showing the vivid hatred of their father, one can't at all dismiss Straub out of hand, even if one doesn't like much of his novel. Yet one is left to wonder about the device of the omniscient narrator and of Tim Underhill's journal: the omniscient narrator identifies himself as the horror novelist at one point, and then withdraws from it. This aspect is a little problematic, especially in a book this short.

But while Straub isn't the one saying this book is a masterpiece, a good deal of the negatives about this book are about him. Sure, he's the author, but when he makes the characters himself and sets the book in his hometown, he becomes fair game for comment by shattering the accepted critical barrier that disallows "personal" criticism. He makes it personal, for people in Milwaukee, I'm sure, as for others, but he simply shows how out-of-touch he really is. He's very sensitive about not appearing out of touch, hence the numerous references to Eminem, e-mail, and Google. He's angry at Milwaukee and his childhood (but you're 60, get over it) and defensive about his being a "horror" novelist, so he gets elitist on us. One winces a bit when Tim Underhill is told that he must make a lot of money, being a successful novelist, and Underhill thinks something to the effect of, "Not nearly what you'd think." And the passage where Tim wants Mark to come visit him at his apartment at 55 Grand Street to "...see the great city and sense its million opportunities, begin to appreciate its gritty essential goodness, and come to understand that New York City was really the opposite of what people living in other parts of the country tended to imagine it to be, was more honest, more generous, and more considerate than other towns and cities. Such was his New York, anyhow, and that of most of the people he knew."

Which people? Sure, there's lots of good in NYC, but if you own property in the area of 55 Grand Street and are able to fly around at will renting large cars, eating out a lot, and make a living solely by your writing, about how much do you think the proceeds from that writing would have to make you a year? E-mail me and I'll tell you. Hey, Mr. Peter. Take a walk on the Lower East Side.

When Tim first meets the serial killer, and the killer asks why he's staring, Tim says, "You reminded me of Robert Wagner twenty years ago." That is a nice stroke on Straub's part, with implications most people over 35 will grasp. Tim's observation that Omar Hillyard, the old man who lives across the street from the haunted house, wears an expression "like an aged Somerset Maugham": not so much. How many of Straub's readers do you think conjure up an image when they think of Somerset Maugham? Ten percent? Five? Oh well, they can always go GoogleImage the dude.

And Straub, who, by the way, is a Race & Gender Thesis in the making (once they get through with all the dead white males), wants us aware of his conspicuous consumption so badly he tells us on a separate page at the end of the book that he wrote it in Boorum & Pease journals (900-3 R) with Visconti pens (Van Gogh and Kaleido), and that he has a typist, and that she does 80 wpm. All this is about like clicking on my name up there to find out who I think I am and it says, "Kevin McGowin is independently wealthy and has a butler." Hey, maybe it's true, but what's it got to do with the story, all this?

It may not have bothered or distracted most other readers, but it did me. ALL this stuff I've mentioned. But if you can get past it all, you've got a good two-hour page-turner with no surprises or originality but with competent enough writing.


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