Longtime readers of Peter Straub’s fiction know that often the novel or story you just read isn’t the whole story. It’s a complete story, sure, but there’s always more lurking beneath the surface. For instance, Straub’s stories “Blue Rose” and “The Ghost Village” tie directly into the characters and events of his novel Koko. “The Juniper Tree” and “Bunny Is Good Bread” expand on the shared backgrounds of the hero and villain of The Throat. And now, with the stand-alone novella A Special Place: The Heart of a Dark Matter, we have the background story of one of A Dark Matter‘s secondary but no less important characters, the deeply troubled college student Keith Hayward.
When we meet Keith in A Special Place, he’s only twelve years old, but already under the thrall of his uncle Tillman Hayward, a.k.a. infamous serial killer The Ladykiller, so named for his choice of victims. Tillman sees something in Keith right away when he learns his nephew has been capturing and killing local pets, a kindred spirit in the world of the psychopathic, and so he takes the boy under his wing and starts to teach him how to be just like his uncle. Keith will need a special place that only he knows about, someplace he can go to act as his true self. But Keith isn’t quite the loner Tillman is. He wants a friend. One day he rescues the school misfit, Tomek Miller, from being urinated on in the boy’s room by school bullies. From then on, Miller is Keith’s friend. Or slave is more like it. The things Keith puts Miller through — bloody and degrading things Miller goes along with because he has no other friends in the world and thus no concept of what is appropriate in a friendship and what isn’t — are far worse than any school bully would have done to him. In this way, I’m reminded of the master-slave relationship in another fine serial killer novel, Joyce Carol Oates’ Zombie.
The novella is filled with Straub’s signature attention to detail and masterful character work. One of the joys of reading A Special Place right on the heels of A Dark Matter is recognizing scenes from Keith’s life as part of the vision the Eel had in the novel when she pierced the veil and assumed the astral form of the skylark. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, all the better!) Hospital orderly Antonio’s cameo in the diner scene toward the end of the novella works nicely to tie the two pieces together, though I have to admit I wanted something a little more at the end, an oomph moment that would have me scrambling for A Dark Matter once more. Short of a cameo by Doity Toid or Badshite, though, I’m not sure how Straub could have accomplished that. But the ending did leave me grasping for something I felt should have been there but wasn’t.
Don’t get me wrong. A Special Place: The Heart of a Dark Matter is an amazing piece of fiction, on par with some of Straub’s other great novellas like “Pork Pie Hat” or “Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff.” I recommend it highly. And even though it is not necessary for the enjoyment of the novella, I do recommend reading A Dark Matter first, for the full effect.