Thursday, August 03, 2006

Magic and Madness

Shadowland, by Peter Straub, Read by William Dufris, BBC Audiobooks America, 2003

Stories within stories are some of the oldest and least reliable narratives provided to us in literature. Generally speaking, the more boxes within boxes, the less clear it becomes who is telling the truth and what or who is being served by the dominant frame. That is why so many ghost stories and campfire tales exist within the “friend of a friend’s cousin’s girlfriend” structure — it provides a kind of plausible deniability. After all, I’m no saying this, I’m just saying what someone else told me.

Part of that is what makes Peter Straub’s 1980 novel Shadowland so unsettling. Did the events told within really take place or are they a figment of one man’s disturbed imagination? Like all good stories of this kind, there are no living witnesses to the events and other parties connected to the events who might shed some light tend to meet their ends under rather mysterious circumstances

The book starts as a kind of therapy for the boy who lived it, Tom Flanagan, told to his old friend from school who is now a writer and the novel’s framing narrator. Both parties, all grown up now, meet in a club where Flanagan is under contract for a couple weeks worth of card tricks and other prestidigitation. Through what Flanagan tells us we are taken back in time to the two boys’ school days and we learn of what really happened the summer after their private school Carson was nearly destroyed by a fire that claimed one life and burnt the field house to the ground. We learn just where exactly Tom Flanagan spent that summer and what happened to a third classmate, the tragic, tiny Dell Nightingale. We also learn the fate of the demented and psychotic student, Steven “Skeleton” Ridpath, a bony figure of nightmare who seems to live to torment Dell.

Shadowland itself is both the name of the New England house where Dell’s uncle Coleman Collins lived and a kind of description of the Carson School, a kind of real world reflection of that Vermont home. There are elements of any nightmare story you might read about the horrors of prep schools with vicious headmasters, even more vicious prefects, and sadistic seniors who zero in on weaker, younger students. That the retreat to home is no refuge is part of the novel's poisoned childhood atmosphere. School breaks are short throughout the year, the book’s first half being taken up predominantly with the developing friendship between Tom and Dell in that last year and in the slow disintegration of what little inhibitions still remain in Skeleton.

Slowly the nightmares from sleep begin to slide into the school's atmosphere and little curiosities begin to occur. A mysterious man in a fedora and trench coat standing far off at the edge of the football field sends Skeleton into a frenzy. Later he attacks Dell at a dance while the chaperones are outside watching a satellite crawl across the night sky. The narrator-author notices Tom Flanagan's pencil momentarily hovering above his desk in class, just long enough to see it, but just briefly enough to question whether or not it was a trick, a slight of hand. A glass owl flies across a stage on its own, then is smashed to pieces by Dell.

While Straub is gifted in the creepy glimpses and the shadowy atmospherics, he is no less capable in laying out the telling real world details. The novel’s early days take place in the mid-1950s, and Straub ladles out charming historical set pieces and props without their seeming gratuitous or placed in the story for pseudo-historical effect: slide rules, vague lectures against doing some thing boys do that saps their strength, excitement about satellites. The idea of forming a jazz combo, as three boys do, is considered a mix of respectable and dangerous.

The book is a slow moving ghost story that flows through almost all the different kinds of nightmares that haunt its characters. At homes there are threads that are coming loose, Dell's godparents' nightly drunken fights, Tom's father dying of cancer. Nor is Skeleton at all safe. Birds haunt him, owls bashing at his window at night, screeching into the dark. The nightmares becomes almost faddish at one point, nearly all the boys at Carson suddenly breaking out in terrors. The trend in particular manifests itself in anonymous hand-written notes posted on a bulletin board which presents a kind of hysteria.

The book's second part moves to the house named Shadowland, which works as some kind of through the looking glass version of the Carson school. It looks like the school, it has a power outage the boys' first day there and is lit by candles just as the school had been. Dell’s uncle explains that he will be instructing both boys in the art of magic and that much of what they will see and experience will be illusory, but real. Hallucinatory aspects begin to proliferate, blossoming like weedy flowers as one surreal scene slurs its way into another.

Much of what takes place that is not surreal here consists of long stories of the life of Dell's uncle Coleman told to the two boys by the magician. They consist of his discovery of his magic abilities and his initiation into the order of magicians by some black men in France. There are also familiar notes played on several told tales throughout.

In a way the story is archetypal, a fact that the author riffs on throughout the course of the novel, staging and restaging fairy tales and folk tales and quest tales and even biblical stories. The struggle between Dell and Tom becomes Cain and Abel, becomes Jesus and Judas, becomes competition and betrayal. Each interaction becomes interpretive after this fashion. Rose Armstrong, a young girl who works for Cole, falls for Tom just as he falls for her and their relationship forms the familiar triangle with Dell, becomes a reference to Red Riding Hood and the Little Mermaid and all the other much more savage original folk tales before Disney bowdlerized all the blood and pain and loss out of it all.

Tom does betray Dell, which makes the book's climactic act of violence even more peculiar, suggestive that we are our victims and the perpetrators of violence together, that much as karma would have it, we are unable to hurt others without it redoubling back on to ourselves. There are tiny little touches throughout the book where every aspect has been turned toward that theme, such as on the trip to Vermont, in the train, Dell introduces Tom to his favorite breakfast food, eggs benedict, hinting toward Benedict Arnold, the traitor from New England.

Yet while there is fine writing throughout, poetic imagery, and a rather unsettling tone, Straub's book isn't moving per se; it almost reads as a theoretical exercise of how to write the mathematically perfect horror novel. There is a distance between us and the characters, even if we do see their tears, even if we do feel their fright, they remain at arm's length, never warming up for us. Strangely, the most human character throughout is the nameless narrator/writer who writes Tom and Dell's story.

By the novel's ending, after a great deal of fantastical elements, the narrator writer rejoins us to express his doubts that any of what we just heard was in fact even remotely true. Perhaps it is his doubts about these things, his unresolvable perplexity that brings him home to the reader, while for Tom the events are boxed up neatly in the past, cordoned off to emotion. Straub is just good enough of a writer for that to possibly be deliberate. This last possible frame we can believe, it is as though he were telling us, this is the one, the one we are all in, open-minded listeners to what the world and its residents tell us, the one to which all symbols and archetypes are directed, our throbbing human world that is not a story, that is true. You can almost believe it.

Reader William Dufris is, of course, no less than brilliant here capturing the stammering innocence of Dell, the aloof frigidity of Coleman Collins, and Skeleton’s unhinged sneering.

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