International Bon Vivant and Raconteur (nick_kaufmann) wrote,
International Bon Vivant and Raconteur

Straubathon: Magic Terror

Peter Straub's superlative 2000 collection of seven longish stories, Magic Terror, is distinguished by just how difficult it is for me to pick a favorite from the bunch. Each story is its own self-contained gem.

"Bunny is Good Bread" is a prequel of sorts to Straub's magnum opus The Throat. (An equally remarkable story, "The Ghost Village," also included here, is a prequel of sorts to The Throat, too, as well as Koko.) In "Bunny," we stand witness to Fielding Bandolier's childhood, where after his father beats his mother into a coma, Little Fee's already fragile home life deteriorates into a nightmare. His father loses his job at the St. Alwyn hotel, an institution which has appeared in numerous Straub works, all centered around the mysterious Blue Rose killer, and begins to take out his frustrations on Fee. Even Fee's daily refuge, the movie theater, has become tainted. A child molester lurks in the audience, victimizing Fee repeatedly. (As it turns out, it is the same man who molested young Tim Underhill, as we discover in The Throat, thereby linking villain and hero with the same secret shame). Those who have read The Throat know what becomes of Fee, but here we see only an inkling of what he turns into. It's a rich, masterful novella.

"Porkpie Hat," in its 63 pages, has all the complexity of character and story you'd expect to find in a full-length novel. (It also shares some of the familial themes of Straub's Mr. X, I noticed.) Here, the narrator interviews a jazz legend, known only as "Hat," about a Halloween night from the musician's childhood where he witnessed events that have haunted him to the end of his days. Venturing into the woods with a friend in search of supernatural thrills, what they find is all-too-human foibles and tragedy, served with a healthy dollop of ambiguity. It's a stunning work.

But you can't talk about Magic Terror without talking about "Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff," the award-winning novella that closes out the collection. Darkly humorous in its juxtaposition of polite high society with gruesome torture, Straub has turned this story's narrator into a strange sort of doppelganger of the narrator of Melville's story "Bartleby the Scrivener." Here, instead of the two employees Nipper and Turkey, we get the amusingly nicknamed Gilligan and the Skipper; and instead of a new employee who would "prefer not to," we find two new employees, Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff, magnificent brutes by trade, who enjoy nothing more than plying said trade. In this instance, their job is to treat the narrator's wife and her lover to a lesson they won't soon forget. Of course, things get out of hand, and it's all related in the most polite of terms over breakfast the next morning. "Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!"

Whether you're a longtime fan of Straub's or new to the scene, Magic Terror is not to be missed. It's the work of an author unquestionably at the top of his game.
Tags: books, straubathon

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