Ever since reading Shadowland when I was a teenager, I’ve been a big fan of Peter Straub. Reading Ghost Story was great, and one of the scenes in the book represents one of the few moments I can recall where a passage in a book really, truly got under my skin. I think he’s an effective storyteller with a great sense of what’s creepy, and I was thrilled to see that he had written a short novel that was supposed to be the be-all, end-all of creepiness.
It’s true that the book is creepy. It’s about a young boy who receives tutelage from his uncle about how to develop and support his murderous nature. This isn’t a new idea — hell, there’s a television series on Showtime about this very thing — but Straub takes it into dark, dark corners. This isn’t a mainstream story; it lacks a real plot, and settles instead on sheer character development to drive the narrative. The focus is strictly on the young boy and how he goes from being an abuser of animals to a full-blown psychopath. It’s effective, because it’s a chilling look at that development, and because while Straub doesn’t shy away from showing us the bad stuff, he doesn’t do so in a clinical way. It’s just enough to make his point.
The thing is, there’s not really much resolution here. Anyone looking for a denouement will be left behind, as will anyone looking for some sort of retribution. It was somewhat disappointing in that sense, but I’ve since learned that this novella was written as a way to show some of the backstory to the main character in one of Straub’s other novels, A Dark Matter. This is cleverly revealed in the subtitle of the book, but I somehow missed that novel, and didn’t realize that this was just a prologue. On the one hand, the novella felt like it was missing something; on the other hand, it piqued my interest enough to want to read the novel.
I think so long as readers going into this novella realize that it’s a prologue to a larger story, they’re going to be satisfied with it. As it is, though, I’m not sure I would recommend it as a stand-alone book.