Valentine Cunningham (review date 27 February 1976)
SOURCE: "Death Dealers," in New Statesman, Vol. 91, No. 2345, February 27, 1976, pp. 264-65.
[In the following excerpt, Cunningham praises Straub's Julia.]
Most weeks Peter Straub's Julia would be a certain pieceleader, granted 'generous space to send its spine-freezing frissons lasering down the column. This week, a bit regrettably, since quality chillers like this come the reader's way so rarely, it must look comparatively out-punched. Don't be put off: matched at its own weight it's a champ. It begins plainly enough, with an American lady, Julia Lofting, impulse-buying a house near Holland Park. But the foreboding sense of yet another American novelist abroad having his characters acquire a place, and a new sense of place, in London just because that's what he's done ('writes full time and lives in London' is often the signpost to the predictably drear), lasts only minutes, and rapidly gives way to an altogether more startling sort of foreboding.
Strange events crowd in on Julia and her new home. A blonde girl resembling her dead daughter haunts the Park doing cruel things with knives and bicycle wheels to tiny living creatures. Noises invade; tiny, ghostly hands flutter lasciviously about Julia's private parts in bed. She gets more and more bloody, gashing and grazing herself, her clothes soaking up her own blood, and that of other mutilated humans and dead animals. She begins to glimpse explanatory patterns. Her house once housed a murderous little blonde girl, stabbed to death by her mother. The murdered girl, Julia discovers, might well be her own husband's daughter. And he—or was it Julia?—stabbed their daughter to death trying to save her life by—wait for it—performing an amateur, emergency tracheotomy as she lay choking to death on a piece of meat. Julia, its power to horrify doubtless stemming from that original, grisly conceit of parental, kitchen-knife surgery, makes an extraordinarily gripping and tantalizing read. Our all too unreliable central character dies messily: is it murder? by ghost or by human? or is it suicide? Every dubious solution and ambivalent pattern is possible, for almost anything becomes believable under the novelist's stunningly Gothic manipulations.