lost boy lost girl
by Peter Straub
Published by Random House
304 pages, 2003
A Whisper of Ghosts
Reviewed by David Abrams
Peter Straub can scare readers with just a whisper. Other horror writers might give us books which scream blood, gore and guts, but Straub (Ghost Story, Koko, The Throat) puts ice in our veins with a soft, barely-audible "boo!"
To badly paraphrase Carl Sandburg, Straub creeps up on little cat's feet and puts his icy paws on the back of our neck when we least expect it. In his latest novel, lost boy lost girl, he saturates his typically literate prose with an ominous buzz that crescendos right up until the last nerve-shattering sentence.
In lost boy lost girl, novelist Tim Underhill (who also appears in Koko and The Throat) returns to his hometown of Millhaven, Illinois when his sister-in-law commits suicide. The death is shocking, especially to Tim's brother Philip and nephew Mark. It was "a death like a slap in the face," the book's first sentence informs us. The family's grief is only made worse when Mark mysteriously disappears a week later.
Based in part on a couple of cryptic e-mails Mark had sent him, Tim starts to think there's something more to his nephew's disappearance than the police department's suspicion that it's the work of the local Sherman Park Killer who has been snatching local teenage boys off the street. Tim returns to Millhaven and begins to investigate the string of deaths and as he gets closer to the truth, he discovers it most likely can be found in the creepy house which has sat abandoned in Mark's neighborhood for years.
As we'd expect from the man who gave us the ultimate Ghost Story, lost boy lost girl eventually turns into another haunted-house masterpiece. The residence at 3323 North Michigan Street becomes a living, breathing, pulsating character in its own right, complete with hidden staircases, sliding panels and poltergeists that move objects from room to room.
Straub is an elegant writer -- on the opposite end of the horror spectrum from his chum Stephen King, the Royal Scribe of Sticky Gore. From Julia onward, Straub has penned his stories in a tradition established by people like Hawthorne, James and Saki. Like his literary ancestors, he knows how to scare readers psychologically, rather than with an amplified, Hollywood-ized barrage of "gotcha!" cheap thrills. The result is complex writing which is placid on its surface, but underneath teems with the squirming nasties of the id.
Like the dust-moted rooms of the house, Straub's writing is quiet and intense, choosing not to blare off the page in show-offy fashion (starting with the unobtrusive, e.e. cummings-like title). Instead, we take our horror in small doses, unexpected scenes which can prickle the neck-hairs with a single, well-placed word.
For instance, while out skateboarding one day, Mark comes across a dark, hulking figure we assume is the Sherman Park Killer and the sight fills him (and us) with icy dread:
A thick-bodied man facing the other direction stood silhouetted against the dead sky at the top of Michigan Street . The sense of wrongness flowed from this man, Mark understood -- this figure with his back turned. Mark took in the unkempt black hair curling past his collar, his wide back covered by a black coat that fell like a sheet of iron to the backs of his knees. Willful, powerful wrongness came off of him like steam.
You could spend hours deconstructing a paragraph like that to determine how Straub does it, how he goes about the business of icy cat's paws with words like "unkempt," "curling" and "steam."
There are plenty of other instances where the author works his black magic on the reader: for instance, a ghost's footsteps "chimed like brush strokes." As Mark sits in the not-empty-after-all house, those whispery footfalls were like "hearing someone stepping down a passage within his own head."
And, earlier, when Mark and his friend Jimbo first entered the house, he'd looked for footprints in the thick dust carpeting the floors. "He saw only tracings, loops and swirls like writing in an unknown alphabet inscribed with the lightest possible pressure of a quill pen." Straub excels at writing subtly wicked sentences like that which collapse our lungs and tighten our throats. What ethereal being, we wonder, could have made those loops and swirls and -- most importantly -- are they good or evil?
Both good and evil inhabit the rooms of Straub's haunted house in lost boy lost girl, and it's that conjunction of forces which gives the novel its air of melancholy and, ultimately, majesty. | December 2003
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.