Peter Straub,
(Coward, McCann & Geohegen, 1980)

Peter Straub's Shadowland is one of the pinnacles of the horror/fantasy genre, a symbolic, unsettling, expertly written journey into the country of magic, a coming-of-age story that surprises, enlightens and terrifies -- sometimes all at once. It follows the journey of two boys, Tom Flanagan and Del Nightingale, first in their experiences at school, discovering that magic is far more than the art of illusion ... and then their travails at the house of Del's uncle, the legendary (and dangerous) Coleman Collins, a.k.a. Herbie Butter. Much of the story is revealed in flashback form, and sometimes in flashbacks within flashbacks, a literary device Straub loves to employ, and uses to great effect here, choosing just the right moment to provide a little illumination, a little atmosphere or a little terror.

As I noted above, the story is about magic (magic here being symbolic of manhood to Straub's young protagonists), about its discovery and its uses ... as well as its perversions. Indeed the entire novel is largely a work of symbolism and allegory, echoing the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (who even make an appearance in the story) and, to a lesser degree, Hans Christian Anderssen. Straub loves to drop such literary allusions all over his novels, and in Shadowland he does it very well indeed, using his mythic backgrounds to echo and inform the story, providing color and shading much as a painter does.

Often a fairy tale that has just been related will happen again as part of Tom's experiences, or the opposite will happen; sometimes the fairy tales are part of a tableau, staged by Coleman Collins for Tom and Del's benefit. Sometimes they become literal events, as they do in the case of Rose, about whom I will reveal nothing save to say that the revelation of who (or what) she really is will shock you down to your toes.

This is a novel, as I also said, about comings-of-age and awakenings, both sexual and otherwise, with magic used as metaphor for this to a large degree (the sequences where Tom lifts the tree and flies being key examples of what I mean; his exhaustion afterwards is almost a sexual one), though there is a true sexual awakening for Tom in Shadowland that is just as telling in its way, and just as revealing about Rose's character, as all of the allegorical goings-on that I've been going on about (at some length) above. It is a dangerous moment for both of them, and Straub pulls it off beautifully, missing not a beat as he relates what could have been a clumsy passage in other hands.

And speaking of danger, the villains in the story, from the enigmatic and menacing Collins to the troll-like Wandering Boys, to the ugly and utterly evil character of Skeleton Ridpath (surely one of the best villans in all of fantastic literature) are portrayed to perfection, adding not just menace to the story but outright moments of terror; there are also three encounters with a mysterious character known only as M., whose confrontations with Tom echo certain elements of the New Testament, and which give the reader one of the clearest indications where Straub is going.

Of course it's also worth noting that not all of the story is quite so serious and grim; there are moments of fine, if twisted, humor, as there are in all of Straub's novels. In one memorable sequence, during a hallucinatory magical revue put on by Collins in his Herbie Butter incarnation, Del and Tom meet up with Bugs Bunny, Jesus and the Apostles (who sing a rousing rendition of -- of all things -- "Fish for Supper"!), all within a few pages.

I could go on and on -- I haven't even touched on the novel's more hallucinatory aspects, or the wonderful depiction of life at a boys' school in the novel's early stages, surely one of the best, most realistic descriptions of such an experience I've ever read. There is also Collins' amazing tale of his days as a surgeon in World War I, and how he discovered magic under the tutelage of Speckle John, which will amaze and startle you as much as anything in the book.

To sum up, Shadowland is essential reading for anyone interested in the horror/fantasy genre. I read it as a teenager, and as I've grown older it's gained more and more resonance with each successive reading; I have no doubt that it'll do the same for you.

book review by
Jay Whelan

11 December 2010

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