The introduction to this book written when it was published has Peter Straub explaining that his idea for the novel was to present a scattered narrative and he was looking for a way to present that scattered story in a comprehensible if not cohesive way actually. His model then was Paul Scott’s amazing Raj Quartet, which consists of four main novels about the end of the British Raj in India and one kind of sequel that revisits side characters who stay after the British leave. The novels are presented in multiple texts with different narrators, but presented as accounts of the information, and not always as stories. It’s similar too to the way that Wilkie Collins often wrote his novels, especially The Moonstone and The Woman in White.
In this novel, the structure is more implied than direct. It’s helpful to know that this was the idea because you don’t always see the different documents as separate, distinct pieces, so much as a shift. The writing can go from very direct at times to fractured at other times.
So the story? It’s basically a proto-It in a way, but that also just means that it’s a latter day version of Dracula in a lot of ways. We are in a small town in Connecticut and we begin with the murder of a woman, a wife and mother (and a bit of……[slur]) who is killed in a mysterious way. Later, we are introduced to our main narrator who tells us he is writing this book in order to try to make sense of not only the recent events, but the history of the town as well. It turns out that the town has been kind of haunted by an evil presence for hundreds of years beginning when a colonial landowner enacted some great evil (but he might have also tapped into it) and began killing people. Now his presence returns every 30 years or so to continue the cycle. Each cycle a group of citizens bands together to fight him. These citizens seem to each share a respective ancestry, meaning that the descendants of the original fighters, continue each cycle. Now we’re in the present and they are back. But in addition to all this, there’s been a local chemical spill that released a toxic gas and it’s unclear through much of the novel whether this gas or that evil is causing the chaos in the town.
What works about the novel is that it embraces the ambiguity of the story and what we know and don’t know, and it shows us why we know some things, why we don’t know others, and what keeps us from fully knowing.