Mr X, by Peter Straub

mr-x-by-peter-straub coverGenre: Horror
Publisher: Random House
Published: 1999
Reviewer Rating: four star rating
Book Review by Paul Kane

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Just when you think you’ve seen it all, along comes a book to prove you completely wrong. In fact, not only have you not seen it all, you’ve only just begun to see in any true sense of the word; and, as Kate once said to Leo, you’ve only uncovered the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Not content with being the author of such international bestsellers as Ghost Story, Koko and The Talisman (with Stephen King), Peter Straub wants to challenge our very perception of reality, of how life, the universe and everything operates. How does he do this, and, more importantly, does he succeed? Well, all I can say at this juncture is he gives it a damned good try.

The action starts with Ned Dunstan returning home to the small Illinois town of Edgerton because he senses his mother is dying. Valerie Star Dunstan hasn’t exactly been what you’d call the best of parents. A wandering hippie songstress who left Ned in the care of foster parents for much of his life, she finally decides to come clean about the identity of his long-lost father as she takes her final breaths in the ICU ward of the local hospital. At first the whispered name of Edward Rhinehart means nothing to him, except for some distant recollection of Star mumbling it in her sleep once when she came to visit. However, with the help of new friend Laurie Hatch, Ned begins to find out just who the man is – linking him to a mystery killer he has seen in visions once a year since he was small, and always on his birthday. A vicious murderer he knows only as Mr X.

Further investigations also lead him to conclude that he wasn’t born alone. Somewhere out there is an identical twin brother Ned never knew he had; and who is perhaps closer than he thinks. But what has this to do with the many deaths that have occurred in Edgerton, deaths that started when he arrived back home? The police think Ned is to blame as he always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and yet he invariably has an alibi. What’s more, whoever’s committing these crimes seems to be able to pass through solid matter like a ghost. The more Ned thinks he knows what’s going on, the more confused he becomes, and the more questions keep cropping up. Why was his father so obsessed with the dead horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft? Why does Ned have such an aversion to Frank Sinatra numbers? What connection can his family possibly have with the wealthy Hatches, and more specifically Laurie’s estranged husband Stewart? What secret does the cabin in the woods hold? What are Ned’s aunts and uncles keeping from him and why do they all appear to have uncanny supernatural abilities too….

First of all, I feel I ought to warn you that Mr X is a complicated book. This isn’t some holiday novel you can read on a flight to Spain, or on the beach when you get there for that matter. You really have to keep your eye on the ball. All the time. If you don’t, you’ll end up missing vital clues as the story unfolds. Of course, I’m not guaranteeing you’ll be able to fathom out the mystery – or should I say mysteries, plural – even if you are going through it with a fine-tooth comb. I feel so baffled, says Ned at one point. Every time I think I finally understand something, I have to start all over again at the beginning. There are times when you’ll feel exactly the same, believe me. Agatha Christie has got nothing on this guy when hes in top gear. For one thing the Dunstan and Hatch family histories are more intricate and convoluted than the Ewings and the Carringtons put together. And the little interludes by Mr X himself won’t help much either, written in such hard to follow, random-thought script. (O you swarming Majesties. Cruelties, Who giveth with one hand and Taketh Away with the other, I begin to see… As the decades passed – I grew accustomed to the consolidation of a Fancy… Get the picture?)

But it is all worth it, I assure you. Straub’s story is a unique one, even if he does use one or two cliches to tell it, and he has this way of making you believe the unbelievable that put me in mind of Clive Barker – one of his fans judging by the glowing recommendation inside. Who else could combine time-travel, demonic creatures, noirish crime sprees, serial killer slaughters and molecular manipulation and make it all seem as plausible as a textbook accompanying a For Schools series on BBC2? Maybe it’s down to Straub’s brilliant characterization. I loved his depiction of Ned’s family (which includes a roguish uncle and a kleptomaniac aunty), and his brilliantly observed Cobbie Hatch (Laurie’s small son who repeats everything parrot-fashion) is a hoot. Or is it his naturalistic dialogue which, apart from one or two lapses (during a knife fight Ned says: Stick me, you white-bread, chicken-shit, over-priveledged future convict!) is totally authentic? Perhaps it’s the wealth of detail he includes, telling the story in a way that is never less than entertaining for all its seriousness.

All right, so the tale could have been imparted in half the time, using half as many words. And the big confrontation comes a little too early for my taste, leaving Straub to tie up all the loose ends in an overlong epilogue. But you’d plainly miss out on some of the magic if Mr X was altered or abridged. And as for that classic last line (well, last paragraph really)…oh, but then I’d better not say any more.

If you’re looking for the novelistic equivalent of a quickie, then you’re bound to be upset. But if you’re looking for horror you can have a committed, lasting relationship with, something to challenge the old grey matter and titillate the literary taste buds, then, yes you guessed it folks: X really does mark the spot.

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