by Peter Straub
What was the worst thing you’ve ever done?
In the sleepy town of Milburn, New York, four old men gather to tell each other stories—some true, some made-up, all of them frightening. A simple pastime to divert themselves from their quiet lives.
But one story is coming back to haunt them and their small town. A tale of something they did long ago. A wicked mistake. A horrifying accident. And they are about to learn that no one can bury the past forever...
Finding this title on a GoodReads list of horror fiction, I selected it on the strength of its high rating. This was my first experience with the author, Peter Straub-- and since it's widely described as his best work, I'm not sure I'll try another. It just depends... The book had its moments, but I had to struggle to get through parts of it-- and I do mean struggle. I kept nodding off! Even during some of the most "suspenseful" sections! Maybe I'm not that easily frightened by books, but surely it shouldn't be quite so easy to slip into dreamland during a nail-biting grand finale.
It started off promisingly; the prologue had me hooked. Intense and intriguing, it kept me guessing and wondering who was the good guy and who the bad. Just what was going on here? Then the prologue ended and the book began in earnest, and it threw me a little off kilter, with its totally different setting and cast of characters. But alright, I can adapt and be patient. This wasn't my first time reading books that shift between points of view, settings, and chronologies. However, it was a distinct let-down, after the excitement and sense of dread of the first several pages. Even worse, it didn't really pick back up again for a good long while.
The biggest problem I had with this book was that it was too drawn out. A tauter editing would have done wonders. It was also very uneven in mood and quality. Several of the suspenseful moments were done well, but then there were long expanses of paragraphs and pages where not much happened. Yes, you need room to build atmosphere and a sense of dread, but if you leave too much room, the dread fades and is replaced with boredom.
I also found many of the characters fairly unlikeable. I get it-- they're supposed to be humans with flaws and weaknesses. Still, did so many of them need to be so flawed? (More on that in the spoiler section below...)
The final straw was that the Big Bad didn't make a whole lot of sense and seemed to change to suit the needs of the story. I've kind of come to terms with the fact that in much (most?) supernatural horror, there's not usually a truly satisfying "explanation". However, in a short story or relatively brief, fast-paced novel, I can more easily cope with the ambiguous nature of the evil du jour. If I've just slogged through over five hundred pages, on the other hand, I expect a little more of a cohesive, well-defined foe. (Again, more specifics below.)
I enjoyed aspects of the book well enough, but it could've been better.
Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--It seemed like every other character was an adulterer. Lewis has for years been carrying on affairs with married women, including the wife of one of his supposed best friends. Then there are Christina Barnes, the insurance salesman, and Stella. Ugh, Stella. I could never bring myself to care about her, and she just kept cropping up again and again. Ok, so maybe she kind of had to, since she's married to Ricky... Anyway, I just found her intensely irritating. It didn't help that every male in the book from the age of about 14 to 100 apparently finds this sixty-year-old woman almost irresistibly tantalizing. I mean, come on.
--I'm not usually one to harp on things like this, but I feel like this book (or maybe its author) has some weird issues with women. The main (human) characters are all male, for starters. That's "allowed", of course, but when the main characters are all male, it makes the female secondary characters stand out all the more, and among them we have two unfaithful wives-- Christina Barnes and especially Stella Hawthorne.
Stella's been cheating on her (most-likeable-character-in-the-book) husband for years, but we're still supposed to admire her. She's age-defyingly beautiful. She's strong and knows how to take care of herself (the hatpin incident). She (finally) decides to stop having affairs and devote herself to her husband. (Wow. What a noble... sacrifice?) But my reaction to Stella is a resounding YUCK. (Sorry, don't like the gal.)
Though Ricky is probably the most sympathetic character in the book, there's also this strange moment, after Stella tells him her cheatin' days are over. "Ricky held his wife's shoulder, aware of her timeless profile beside him. If she had not looked like that, could he have endured it so long? Yet if she had not looked like that, she would not have been Stella-- it was impossible speculation." ...I know men usually are more "visual" than women, but this little tidbit was decidedly off-putting. So he can put up with his wife's philandering because she's a knock-out... And he can't separate her physical appearance from her "essence"-- personality, spirit, mind? It's a good thing Stella never had a disfiguring accident or disease, then!
I guess Lewis' wife was normal, but she's dead... Don Wanderley has a weird relationship with a not-very-pretty woman, whom he drops as soon as he meets the ravishing Alma... Sears has his kinda-creepy memory of defiling the blouse of an attractive woman whose children he babysat... The "Dedham girls" are oddballs, but ok, there are some oddball peripheral male characters, too... Then there's the fact that the main shapeshifter seems to (almost) always select a female form-- and engages in sexual relationships with a number of men, too, before killing them. I don't know. Maybe it's just me, but the no-normal-women thing kept occurring to me as I read. On the other hand, there aren't that many really well-balanced, honest, normal male characters, either.
--More weird "woman stuff": Eva snubbed the local women, so after her fiance died under unusual circumstances, "the old women, the women she had ignored ... laid into her. Said she'd ruined Stringer. Of course half of them had unmarried daughters and they'd had their eyes on Stringer long before Eva Galli showed up. ... They made her out to be a real Jezebel." And "if we had called on her, the female malice would have gone into high gear."
-- And more! "She did seem like a devil; like something possessed. You know how when a woman gets angry, really angry, she can reach way back into herself and find rage enough to blow any man to pieces-- how all that feeling comes out and hits you like a truck? It was like that."
--What was all that about a cult/order called X.X.X. (Xala Xalior Xlati)? It was plenty creepy when it first came up, but by the end of the book, it makes no sense at all. Why would Alma have purposely courted Don's fear and suspicion by bringing that up, anyway?
There was something weird with the timeline, too. Unless I missed something, Sears had his run-in with the Bate brothers before he had a hand in killing Eva Galli. Why did they end up in Eva's service? Mere coincidence? Did Eva know that Sears would be in her future (even though we learn that her psychic abilities and/or guesses are imperfect)? Or was she watching Sears and the boys and only then decided to follow Sears home to Milburn?
I guess Alma/Eva messed with Don because of his uncle's hand in her death-- but why go after him before dealing with the rest of the Chowder Society? Why were only certain members of the Chowder Socity's families targets?
It's hinted that the ghost stories the Chowder Society tells are somehow feeding Eva. With the energy of their fear? Who knows?! That's never really fleshed out to my satisfaction.
Oh! And at least a couple of times it's suggested that Don has drawn the darkness down on the town-- focused it-- that he's brought it with him, somehow. What? Why? He wasn't even one of the people who killed Eva. Just the nephew of one of those men. Is it because he's a writer with a great imagination, and they feed on that? It makes no sense.
There are apparently more of these shapeshifters out there. The man with the Jehovah's Witness pamphlets is one; Florence de Peyser is another. Both of them seem to be fairly closely connected to Eva/Alma. Well, now that Don's finally truly killed Eva/Alma, won't they come for revenge?
How did the men know (or even guess) that if they could "kill the lynx" they'd finally truly kill the shapeshifter? And why did the shapeshifter always turn into an animal first? I wondered if it would turn out to be something like the film Fallen, where a demonic spirit can possess the body of a person, but sometimes takes refuge in an animal, if no better prospect is available. However, I don't think it's ever really explained at all, so who knows...
Why do these... things-- not ghosts, things... keep telling the living that "I am you"? The only attempts at explanation I've seen haven't been enough for me.
Ugh, you know what? I give up. I don't think there is any answer. It simply doesn't make sense, and with this long of a book, I want a little more of an explanation. Maybe that's unreasonable, but it's what I want.