Peter (Francis) Straub Thomas Sutcliffe - Essay

Thomas Sutcliffe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like [Stephen] King, Peter Straub has a string of creepy best-sellers behind him, but he knows that he is a new arrival and knows, too, which club he wants to join—the one to which Hawthorne, Poe and Henry James belong. In fact Shadowland takes as its principle a remark of Hawthorne's which is quoted approvingly in Straub's previous novel Ghost Story: "I have sometimes produced a singular and not unpleasing effect, so far as my own mind is concerned, by imagining a train of incidents in which the spiritual mechanism of faery legend should be combined with the characters and manners of everyday life."

It is one of the faults of Shadowland that it is too bound up with the mechanism of the faery legend to recreate convincingly the second half of that combination….

Straub deals well with the bizarre son et lumière of spectral effects, but the best moments in the book stem from his jokey recognition of the limitations of his genre. His demons are far less pofaced than some. They make jokes though they probably can't take them, and there is a convincing sense of bathetic surprise about some of his other manifestations….

In the end it is hard to avoid the feeling that Straub is embarrassed by his material; and it is easy to see why. The naturalistic novel, intent on the characters and manners of everyday life, cannot readily cope with a scene in which one of those characters is turned into a sparrow. Such an event, in the blind, spare prose of a fairy tale, at least retains a certain dignity through its explicitness: its promise of an imminent meaning is plausible. By invoking the ghosts of Perrault and the Brothers Grimm (in the case of the latter, literally—they turn up in one of the forbidden rooms, busily working on further archetypes) and by a voguish, self-referential emphasis on the connection between magic and storytelling, Straub suggests a similar dignity for his own tale.

Hawthorne's prescription brings Straub down, however, and Shadowland ultimately has neither the gnomic simplicity of the fairy-tale nor the eery sense of a grossly interrupted reality, which he caught more successfully in Ghost Story.

Thomas Sutcliffe, "Getting the Wind Up," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4072, April 17, 1981, p. 430.