[In the Night Room by Peter Straub, New York: Random House, October 2004, ISBN: 1-4000-6252-7]
From the start, Peter Straub’s career has been marked by reinvention. Having hit an early road block as a mainstream novelist, he reinvented himself as a horror writer. Having taken horror fiction to its limits, he reinvented himself as a mystery/thriller writer with the BlueRose trilogy (1988–93), each volume of which reinvented the events of the novel(s) before. Having succeeded with thrillers, Straub has reinvented himself yet again: this time as the writer of short novels that hover between horror and mystery, and foreground the metafictional concerns that have always animated his fiction. lost boy/lost girl was the first book in this latest phase of Straub’s career; in it, he brought back two of the characters from the BlueRose trilogy, Tim Underhill and Tom Pasmore, for a narrative that reconceived the haunted house. Now, he has followed lost boy/lost girl with In the Night Room, a brilliant and challenging revision of the previous novel.
The subject of lost boy/lost girl was Tim Underhill’s investigation of his nephew Mark’s disappearance. Mark, trying to understand the sudden and unexplained suicide of his mother, had been drawn to the house of Joseph Kalendar, a local serial killer of years gone by. Kalendar had built a house within his house, constructing a series of hidden spaces within it, including secret passages, a hidden staircase, and even an extra room—all of it to facilitate his deadly work. As the novel progressed and Underhill reconstructed Mark’s movements, it came to seem more and more likely that his nephew had been murdered by another serial killer, a contemporary avatar of Kalendar. Although the novel presented a scenario in which Mark did not die, but escaped with the ghost of Kalendar’s daughter into an Edenic other world, a careful reading of the novel suggested this was Underhill’s attempt to provide his nephew a happier fate.
As In the Night Room begins, Tim Underhill is awaiting the publication of his latest novel: lost boy/lost girl, which he has written as a way to cope with the loss of his nephew. Our suspicion that lost boy/lost girl’s supernatural elements might be Underhill’s invention is here made explicit; although we also learn that Mark’s body has never been found. In the Night Room is not, however, a naturalistic explanation of the earlier novel; if anything, its fantasy is more extravagant. In the book’s opening pages, Tim Underhill receives a series of cryptic e-mails which appear to have been sent by former classmates—all of them dead. These prompt Underhill to recall the day’s earlier events: a vision of his sister’s ghost, and a disturbing encounter with Jasper Kohle, an increasingly unpleasant fan who appears to become older and more sinister as the conversation proceeds. During their exchange, Kohle discloses to Underhill the existence of “real books,” perfect realizations of the novels writers produce, a few copies of which slip into every print run. Underhill has dismissed Kohle’s ideas as delusions, but a subsequent encounter with him confirms the man’s menace and apparently supernatural character. That same meeting ends with an angel revealing himself to Underhill in the middle of a rainy Manhattan street, bearing out Rilke’s assertion that every angel is, indeed, terrifying.
Interspersed with Underhill’s narrative, Straub gives us a second plot: that of Willy Bryce, a children’s book writer whose husband and daughter were killed several years before. As Willy’s story begins, she is convinced that her daughter is not dead, and she sits in her car outside a warehouse in which she is believes her daughter is being held captive. In the wake of her previous tragedy, Willy has managed to put her life back together, writing her way out of her grief and, eventually, becoming involved with a charismatic man to whom she is now engaged. Where Underhill’s story is top-heavy with flourishes that recall Straub’s horror novels, Willy’s story initially seems more in the vein of such thrillers as The Hellfire Club (1996). Indeed, as it becomes apparent that Willy is living out a version of the Bluebeard story, forbidden by her fiancÚ from entering a room in his house full of the darkest secrets (a room that, of course, she enters), and as flight becomes her only option, one expects her narrative to echo Straub’s earlier novel. Here, however, as he does throughout In the Night Room, Straub pulls the rug out from under us, simultaneously fulfilling and flouting our expectations. Willy flees, but her destination is not one she had planned.
As the novel’s plots have progressed, two things have become clear: Willy Bryce is the protagonist of the novel Tim Underhill is currently writing, and their narratives are going to converge. This happens when Willy crosses over from the world of her novel to the world of her creator. It is one of a pair of moves with which Straub raises the stakes for the novel considerably. The irruption of the fictional into the real has been handled by writers ranging from Woody Allen to Jonathan Carroll; Straub himself has dealt with varieties of the idea in Shadowland (1980) and The Hellfire Club. The collision of the imaginary and the real has the potential to highlight the power of art to take on an life of its own, to shape the reality that has shaped it. It also runs the risk of degenerating into second-rate theology and cutesiness. Until this point in the novel, it has been possible to read its supernatural occurrences as externalizations of Tim Underhill’s psyche—not always easy, but possible. Willy’s escape from one level of narrative to another makes that all but impossible to do, pushing the novel into the realm of the out-and-out fantastic.
Shortly before Willy’s migration, Straub makes his other, stakes-raising move: he sketches out a rough cosmology that explains the novel’s strange events. In none of his previous supernatural fictions has Straub gone so far in explaining the background—what one might call the deep background—of the weirdness confronting his characters. One cannot help but be reminded of similar moves by such writers as Stephen King (in the Dark Tower series (1982–2004)) and Caitlin Kiernan (in Murder of Angels (2004)); although Straub is less concerned with his cosmos as place to explore and more concerned with it as way to explain. He keeps that explanation relatively short. Through an e-mail sent by a tutelary figure, Underhill learns that the next life is not dissimilar to this one. It has a great library that contains all the books ever written—the real books to which Jasper Kohle referred. It is in one of these books, the ideal lost boy/lost girl, that the spirit of Joseph Kalendar has read Tim Underhill’s attempt at imagining Kalendar’s life. This has infuriated the dead man, and driven him back across the barrier between dead and living. Underhill has already met him, in the person of Jasper Kohle. Kalendar/Kohle does not object to Underhill’s portrait of him as a serial killer, or of having concealed the existence of his daughter from the world, or even of abusing that daughter. What has enraged him is Underhill’s assertion that Kalendar murdered his daughter. In fact, he did not, and so Underhill must embark on a quest to learn her fate, preparatory to making an expiatory gesture through his writing.
His search for the actual Lily Kalendar’s fate brings Underhill—accompanied by Willy—once more to Millhaven, Illinois, the site of lost boy/lost girl, as he literally must cover the same ground. On the way, Underhill and Willy are pursued by her fiancÚ’s henchmen, who have been caught by the same force that brought Willy from one reality to another. Despite its gestures towards the pursuit novel, however, this is not such a book—or, it moves from standard pursuit novel, in which the goal is the protagonist’s evasion of capture, to metaphysical pursuit novel, in which the goal is the protagonist’s apprehension of greater truth. For all intents and purposes, the chase ends while Underhill and Willy are still on the road, leaving them free to focus their energies on learning the fate of Lily Kalendar.
That fate is one of the novel’s more extraordinary revelations. As Underhill and Willy play detectives, conducting a series of interviews with the people who took Lily Kalendar from her father and then raised her, Straub gives us the condensed biography of a young woman’s attempt to deal with the horror of her origins that is as potent as anything he has written. In many ways, Lily’s story complements those of such earlier Straub characters as the Blue Rose trilogy’s M.O. Dengler and Fee Bandolier: but where those characters were twisted by the horrors of their childhoods into something monstrous, Lily Kalendar has found another way. In a sense, she is still monstrous: not in the sense of being evil, but in the sense of being radically different from those around her.
As the novel progresses, Underhill’s actions increasingly mirror Kalendar’s. This is not to say that he becomes a ruthless serial killer. Rather, he quickly begins a physical relationship with Willy; given that she is his creation—his daughter, as it were—their affair has distinctly incestuous overtones, and so echoes Kalendar’s treatment of his daughter. However, Underhill and Willy’s relationship is positive. It is as if Underhill must repeat the outward form of Kalendar’s behavior in the interest of transforming—redeeming—its inward significance. Much the same thing will happen at the novel’s climax, when Underhill must surrender and sacrifice Willy, in a move that repeats Kalendar’s act.
In this regard, In the Night Room carries forward Straub’s abiding concern with what might be called therapeutic fiction. This was perhaps first evident in Ghost Story (1979), in which the members of the Chowder Society had to admit their trespass to themselves and to another before they could reckon with it effectively. The concern continued in Koko (1988), whose climax involved not a fight to the death, but a voicing of the monster’s pain, and The Throat (1993), in which Tim Underhill’s solving of that novel’s various crimes was also the solving of his self. In In the Night Room, Underhill must enter the night room himself: he must enter the space of Joseph Kalendar’s actions in order to understand and exorcise them.
At the same time, the novel takes the metafictional concerns that have animated much of Straub’s work in fascinating directions. Because of the novel’s strong narrative drive, we take its fantasy elements at face value; however, because we have been told that the fantasy of lostboy/lostgirl was invented, we also have cause to doubt all of In the Night Room’s extravagances. We are reading a story that discounts its predecessor and in so doing potentially discounts itself. Straub complicates matters when he tells us that, following the September 11th attacks, Tim Underhill suffered a breakdown and spent time recovering at a sanitarium in Massachusetts. Yet the novel’s supernatural elements seem so central to its plot that it is difficult to do away with them altogether. We must take the novel as completely real and completely invented. The effect Straub achieves does not seem so much Todorov’s famous “hesitation” (or Clute’s more recent “equipoise”): instead of an either/or, we have a both/and. In the end, In the Night Room is true to its moment, as lost boy/lost girl was true to its; that a third novel may in turn revise this one does not make it any less significant. Indeed, such partial vision is to be prized: at the novel’s very end, Tim Underhill has the opportunity to read the ideal version of one of his novels, a chance he flees from. Real books, perfect vision, are for the unchanging world of the dead; while we are alive, what we have is not so neat.
Despite the book’s interest in unreliable narration—and it is a fine example of how far such narration can be taken—it is more than an authorial shell game. At the heart of the novel is a concern with how we live with the unbearable, whether that is parental abuse, the death of loved ones, the betrayal of a lover, or terrorist atrocity. While Straub never delivers a clumsy moral, the novel endorses the idea that we respond to such situations with our imaginations, that we imagine and then reimagine the very worst. If one wanted a raison d’etre for fantasy in dark times, this would do well.
Writing about William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot distinguished between those writers whose work remains essentially unchanged throughout their careers and those who push themselves to new places, who reinvent themselves. There can be no doubt as to which group Peter Straub belongs. At a point in his career when he might feel justified in resting on his laurels, he has continued to move ahead in new, exciting, provocative ways. That he has the ambition to do so is admirable; that he has the ability to succeed is a cause for joy.