Thursday, April 15, 2010

Houses Without Doors

Houses without Doors by Peter Straub: The title, from Emily Dickinson, suggests the desperate straits of many of the characters in the novellas and short stories contained herein. In horror, Straub's concerns have often been with presenting the wonder that can accompany terror, which is to say that his works attempt to suggest the Sublime and the unknowable. This collection, Straub's best, is pretty much unrelenting in its depiction of characters trapped within various circumstances, supernatural and natural, that cannot easily be escaped, if at all.

The short novel that closes the collection, Mrs. God, owes a lot to Robert Aickman's eerily ambiguous horror stories, as Straub notes in the afterword, but the novel is a bit more 'muscular' than Aickman, if that makes any sense -- the situation is a bit more explicable than that in many of Aickman's great stories, and the whole thing is rooted in a particular type of Hell that anyone who has gone through graduate studies in English with an eye towards making a career in academia will recognize. Mrs. God is also weirdly funny, though it's certainly not a light romp. And while there are explanations for many of the odd events that plague an American sessional lecturer during his stay at an English mansion that was once the playground of the literary and artistic elite, some things can't be explained -- which is fine because, per Ramsey Campbell, "explanation is the death of horror."

In another long piece, "The Buffalo Hunter," Straub gives us a lonely, emotionally damaged young man with an extremely odd fetish (he's obsessed with baby bottles) and an even odder 'power' (he can be transported into the pages of the books he reads). I find the awfulness of several pages of this story almost unreadable, not for supernatural horror but because of the abject vicarious embarrassment created by the protagonist's attempt to have a normal date with a normal woman. It's pretty much all the squeamish social moments in a typical episode of The Office dialed up to 11. The ambiguous ending of this story defies easy judgment.

Straub has had a long and distinguished career -- if he didn't work primarily in horror fiction, the mainstream would celebrate how good he's been both here and in the fine novels he's been writing since the 1970's (Ghost Story, Shadowlands, Mr. X, Koko, Mystery, The Hellfire Club...the list goes on and on). And he can be funny amongst the horrors, the hauntings and the haunted. Highest recommendation.

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