12 February 2010

Review: Mr. X

In Mr. X, Peter Straub writes about identity, family and the way the past influences our present. He also pays literary homage to weird writer H.P. Lovecraft. It was this last item which most got me interested in reading Mr. X and, sadly, the element I found most disappointing. Straub can write great literary horror, as seen in his Ghost Story, which pays homage to the ghost stories of Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne, but he seems to stumble here. This isn't entirely Straub's fault, as the Lovecraft homage or pastiche can be harder to pull off than it looks. Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges gave it a shot with "There Are More Things," and while it's a decent story, it's not one of Borges' best nor is it likely to make you forget "The Rats in the Walls." Writing a Lovecraft homage is a little like playing a Led Zeppelin cover song. Just because it's been done badly so often doesn't mean that doing it well is easy.

The premise is intriguing, and for the first of its six sections the book moves swiftly, drawing the reader into its sense of mystery. And the life of our protagonist, Ned Dunstan, is full of mystery. There is the strange premonition he gets of his mother's impending death; the question of his father, a man he has never met and about whom his mother has refused to talk; the feeling of missing something or someone in his life; and finally, the terrible attacks he has had every year on his birthday, starting when he was three years old. Only Ned knows, however, that what other people see as seizure-like episodes, he experiences as vividly real dreams. In these dreams, he witnesses terrible crimes committed by a strange figure dressed in a black coat and hat. He identifies this bogeyman by the name of Mr. X.

Interspersed with Ned's narrative are journal entries from Mr. X. Mr. X describes his own childhood, the discovery of certain supernatural powers and the revelation that he was descended from beings known as the Great Old Ones to help bring about their reign on earth. Later he discovers the work of H.P. Lovecraft and identifies his own story with that of the Providence author, going so far as to become obsessed with Lovecraft and his stories, believing them to be prophecies.

The premonition of his mother's death has brought Ned back to his hometown of Edgerton, where he spends time with his aunts and uncles as well as some of his mother's old friends. He also begins to search for the father he never knew and becomes embroiled in a local businessman's shady dealings. As you can see, there are a lot of elements here, and had Straub managed to blend them well, it would make for a real tour-de-force.

One central problem is Mr. X, who makes an effectively creepy villain for a little while but becomes less frightening the more journal entries we read. About a third of the way into the novel I came to the conclusion that Mr. X was easily the whiniest of the Bastard Spawn of the Great Old Ones I had ever encountered. (I imagine he avoids Old One family reunions lest he suffer Cyclopean wedgies at the hands of Wilbur Whateley.) There's something to be said for bogeymen willing to be quietly ominous, or if they're going to rant, it should reinforce the sense of menace, not undermine it. Mr. X's purple prose might be intended as a parody of Lovecraft's writing style but comes across as bad Lovecraft fanfic, especially when Mr. X is expressing such non-Lovecraftian sentiments such as:

This may be a consequence of the weakness of the villain, but I found myself pretty bored with all of the characters. Ned is compelling as a confused young man beset by mystery but less so as a pulp detective figure hunting down the various threads of family and criminal intrigue. His aunts and uncles are a motley crew who are meant to be sort of charming in their twistedness, but every time one of them said some variation on "We are Dunstans" to reference the family's low standing in Edgerton, they crossed closer to self-parody. There have always been Dunstans in Cold Comfort Farm, after all. Ned also has a love interest, Laurie Hatch, who is tangentially connected to the criminal dealings. (She's the husband of a local, corrupt businessman.) She has a cute kid with musical talent and is quite sexy in a panther-like sort of way but sadly lacks much in the way of a personality.

The lack of engaging characters ends up undermining some of what should be the novel's strengths For example, Straub's prose has a nicely literary quality, such as when he describes Ned and Laurie's lovemaking:
Some of the women I had known may have been more passionate than Laurie, but none were more gracefully attuned to the capacity of each individual moment to spread its wings and glide into the next. She also had the gift of what some would call a dirty mind and others inventiveness. The more we explored our bodies and celebrated their abilities, the more unified we became until we seemed to pour into each other and become a single, profoundly interconnected thing.

It's nicely written and would be almost transcendent if I felt some connection to the characters, but since I don't it just seemed sort of purple to me, high-toned Harlequin romance.

This deleterious effect also extends to some of the novel's twists. We learn three different backstories for Laurie, and if she were a character I had cared about, I would have been struck with a feeling of suspense and wanted to know which was true. I didn't really care, though, and so felt that reading one backstory was punishment enough. Other twists were undermined by Straub's decision to riff off certain elements of Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror." This isn't bad on its own, but some twists that should have been surprising seemed obvious if you were familiar with the original.

Straub probably should have taken the advice offered up to Joseph Curwen about not calling up what you cannot put down, since I think the Lovecraft homage proves particularly damaging to the novel. Lovecraft had many weaknesses as a writer, but his portrayal of a universe where cosmic forces easily overwhelm a humanity to which they are indifferent was quite radical for its time and still retains the power to inspire dread. In discussing Ghost Story, Peter Straub says he realized that the "low key and restrained" horror story was self-defeating, and that "horror stories were best when they were big and gaudy, when the natural operatic quality in them was let loose." It's an effective strategy when riffing off of James or Hawthorne, but Straub doesn't adjust it for Lovecraft. In "The Dunwich Horror" Lovecraft gives us a monster that is like a big elephant, octopus thing with a huge face on one side of it's body. Mr. X has a guy who teleports around and stabs people. There's a bit of a scale problem there. Compared to Lovecraft's tales of horrors from beyond the borders of the known universe, the intrigue over trust funds and daddy issues come off as so much small potatoes, all those twists and turns just soap opera.

No scene illustrates Straub's failure to capitalize on the Lovecraft homage than the library scene. Yes, a library scene. If you've read many Lovecraft stories or even Lovecraft pastiches, you're familiar with it. When Ned discovers Mr. X's library he finds "multiple copies of every edition of Lovecraft's books... first editions, paperbacks, trade paperbacks, library editions." This is the Lovecraftian equivalent of leaving cash on the table. There's no texture there, none of the frisson between real and fictional works. By the time Mr. X was written, Lovecraft had become the subject of so many works, the pastiches of Arkham House, the periodical Lovecraft Studies, the Simon Necronomicon, the Hay Necronomicon, The Starry Wisdom. These last three all deal, to different extents, with the question of Lovecraft's fiction as cosmology, so they would be just the sort of thing you'd expect someone like Mr. X to own.

I realize that many of my criticisms wouldn't be shared by a reader who is less of a Lovecraft fan, and so I am hesitant to discourage anyone from reading the book. There are some good aspects. Straub's prose has its usual polished middlebrow quality. Edgerton--especially its seedier side--really comes alive sometimes. There also a certain audacity to all the twistiness, which I probably would have enjoyed if I had engaged more with the characters or didn't know what to expect. I almost wish I could read or at least review this book as someone who was not a Lovecraft fan, but it's not something that I'm able to do.

I think despite the homage, it's not really a book for Lovecraft fans. I'm not sure it would appeal to the reader who is wholly ignorant of Lovecraft's Mythos, either. That still leaves a good portion of horror readers, who tend to be ambivalent about Lovecraft and who would possibly really enjoy the novel. I hate to end a review on such a noncommittal note, but, seriously, your mileage may vary.

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