Over the years, a number of my favorite authors have paid their respects to H.P. Lovecraft; visiting the old Master’s grave is just something a lot horror writers do. As the Father of Modern Horror, good ol’ H.P. has exercised a profound influence over most of the field’s best and brightest, and it’s natural to want to give something back, and point new readers to the source of so many classic frights. Besides, it’s traditional! Lovecraft used to mention the writers that influenced him all the time, especially if he was lifting something juicy from one of their stories.
Stephen King has written more than one story in the Lovecraftian vein, the most notable example probably being his novella “Jerusalem’s Lot”. Robert Bloch was actually the youngest member of the Lovecraft Circle when the Old Gent was still alive; he went on to write wholly original horror classics, like Psycho and American Gothic, but his early work was all in the Cthulhu Mythos. Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley both wrote extensively in the Mythos as well, when they were younger men; they’ve both shaken it off now and gone on to formidable careers of their own, but Lovecraft’s shadow fell heavily on their early days.
In fact, if you look carefully at just about any horror writer whose work is worth a damn, you’ll probably find that a little tip of the hat in the direction of Providence, Rhode Island was made somewhere along the line. Even a hot young Turk like Poppy Z. Brite has paid her respects…one of her more popular short stories, “His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood”, is actually just a sexed-up re-write of Lovecraft’s “The Hound”.
For many authors, in other words, writing a bit of Lovecraft-inspired fiction is a rite of passage of sorts, and a first-class ticket into the Land of Shadows. For some, in fact, that term of service in the Mythos was as necessary to their education as writers of horror as a few years as an intern is necessary to one’s education as a doctor. And given the fact that the love of Lovecraft is almost universal in the ranks of horror’s most skillful wordsmiths, it should come as no surprise that a writer like Peter Straub is also a member of this extended and freakish family.
It took Straub many years to get around to writing an homage to Grandpa, but with his latest novel he’s made up for lost time. Mr. X is actually little more than an extended tribute to Lovecraft and all that the Providence Master achieved in his work, most especially one of his classic short stories, “The Dunwich Horror”. Not only does Straub make literal reference to “The Dunwich Horror” and many other Lovecraft stories throughout the book, but he lifts plot elements, themes, names and places straight out of the Old Gent’s famous stories, time and again, just for the sheer hell of it!
Still more amusing to sane and literate fans of Lovecraft will be Straub’s vicious jabs at the exact kind of Lovecraft aficionado that we all love to hate: that poor deluded boob who insists that all the elements of Lovecraft’s great fiction–the Outer Gods, the alien races, the dread book called the Necronomicon—are not fiction at all, but literal truths! Regardless of how many times the author denied it, in person and in print, there are always some woeful dorks who will not be persuaded that Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu aren’t real.
These self-same credulous ninnies have actually done things as silly as forming Cthulhu Cults, expressly for the purpose of worshiping the slimy benthic overlord of the Lovecraft canon. And they persist in the belief that the various joke versions of the Necronomicon to be found at most occult bookstores are actually legitimate translations of a real grimoire. They will tell you quite calmly that the author of said book, Abdul Al-Hazred, was actually a real person, born in Constantinople in the Middle Ages…as opposed to being an entirely fictional person, born on a pleasant summer morning in 1928 to be immortalized as a throw-away line in one of Lovecraft’s weirder tales.
At any rate, most Lovecraft fans have found that incredulous laughter, well-meant corrections of fact and malicious sarcasm are all equally useless in relieving such people of their delusions: they have found the One True Faith and they will not be turned aside from it. And since looking silly is probably the least of such a person’s problems, when you think about it, the best course of action is probably not to try and persuade them that they’re mistaken, anyway….the best course of action is to back slowly toward the nearest exit, keeping a careful eye on them to be sure they make no sudden movements.
The villain of this novel, the murderer known only as Mr. X, is just such an idiot: he not only believes that it’s all real, but he considers Lovecraft the Prophet of a great gospel. In fact, Mr. X views himself as an instrument of the Apocalypse, a sort of Lovecraftian anti-Christ born to orchestrate the return of the Great Old Ones to our earthly plane of existence (just like Wilbur Whateley in “The Dunwich Horror”, but without the tentacles). Bully for him, eh?
Fortunately for us, Mr. X is not the viewpoint character for most of the book; his first-person ranting about the Great Old Ones gets a little thick at times. Of course, it does give Straub the chance to indulge in some old-fashioned Lovecraft parody and have a little fun, and this is not a bad thing; still, I have to confess that I found these passages irritating on my first read-through of this novel. Until I got two-thirds of the way through Mr. X, I couldn’t see where Straub was going with any of this, and I was inclined to think that he was just being a disrespectful little punk.
In fact, of course, Straub is being just the opposite. These passages of Lovecraft parody are written out of respect, not contempt, and part of what Straub is trying to say is that Lovecraft is a writer very easy to parody, but almost impossible to imitate. In fact, virtually any attempt to emulate Lovecraft results in parody, whether the author intends it or not; his authorial voice and his ideas were both unique and have never been matched by any imitator. Straub’s parody here draws deliberate attention to itself by being so broad…and amazingly enough, it actually distracted me from the author’s literary sleight-of-hand for a quite a while! I didn’t notice for many, many pages that Mr. X was an extended commentary on a Lovecraft story which has been a favorite of mine for many years.
The idea behind this story has always been a good one, of course. It was a good idea when Arthur Machen first wrote “The Great God Pan” in 1894; it was a great idea when Lovecraft wrote “The Dunwich Horror” in 1928, and it’s a fine idea now. In fact, it’s interesting to read Straub’s unique take on the subject of inbreeding, degenerate genes and the lingering survival of gods from before the dawn of civilization. He certainly does manage to put his own unique spin on things.
The protagonist of Mr. X is a nice chap named Ned Dunstan, who has spent most of his life torn in two. He was born the son of Star Dunstan, a feckless Bohemian hippy-type chick who brought him into the world with love, but could never take proper care of him. He spent most of his childhood in foster homes, raised full time by loving strangers and visited occasionally by a birth mother who, although she obviously cared deeply for him, could never tell him anything useful about his own past. The one day a year that she’d never visit him was his birthday…because Ned Dunstan’s birthday was never a happy occasion.
On every birthday since Ned turned 3, he has been plagued by a strange epileptic fit. His convulsions are accompanied by a fugue state, during which he has visions of a terrifying man in black. This unearthly figure is surrounded by a corona of blue fire, and he passes through walls and doors as if they were thin air, carrying in his hand a long, sharp knife. Every year, on Ned Dunstan’s birthday, the boy sees people die…die horribly and bloodily at the hands of a killer they cannot fight, cannot lock out, and cannot escape.
As the action of the novel begins, Our Hero is hitch-hiking to the small town of Edgerton, Illinois. He has a feeling, somewhere deep in his gut, that his mother is dying…and although he doesn’t know exactly how he knows, he’s quite sure that he has to hurry if he wants to see her or speak to her before she passes. Whether she’s sick or hurt, Ned also knows that Star Dunstan would make her way back home, to the town where she was born, to do her dying. This is where all of her family have lived for many generations, in the houses on Cherry Street.
When he arrives in Edgerton, Ned Dunstan discovers that his mother has suffered a stroke. As she lies in a hospital bed with only hours left to live, Star finally tells him the name of the man who was his father…and thus sets him on a course of bleak discovery about himself and his family which takes up the rest of the book. It’s a theme that Lovecraft approached many times, because the subject fascinated him in real life: geneology, and the skeletons buried in our DNA.
Never let it be said, of course, that Straub fails to give this story his own unique touches. Most of his characters are extremely well-drawn, and they have the kind of human motives that Lovecraft always disdained to write about: love, lust, greed, pride, and even common decency. The plot is complex and interesting, with unforeseen twists and turns. Still, there are some parts of the narrative which felt oddly tacked on to me, especially the female love interest; she seems to exist only to serve as a device, rather than a person, and the ending of the book makes it fairly clear that Straub had no real idea of what to do with her, after she had ceased to be useful as a sex object or a person-to-explain-things-to.
Nonetheless, Mr. X really is a brilliant little book, especially if you’ve read the source material. There are some passages here which are surprisingly creepy, and others with great literary resonance. One of the central images of the book, for example, is the Dunstan family mansion. This forbidden place, buried deep in the heart of a wild wood, is the black shrine of the Dunstan family’s mystery…but it’s also an immensely clever literary symbol.
You see, several generations of the Dunstan family have lived in this house, and they’ve picked up stakes and moved it several times, erecting the exact same edifice over and over in new locations. In this way the house has traveled through time and space for decades, from England to Rhode Island to Edgerton, Illinois. As Straub puts it:
“To build that house on New Providence Road, Sylvan had the ancestral manse in England taken apart stone by brick, and he shipped all those stone across the sea and put them back together again exactly the way they were in the old days…”
When you think about it, this is a remarkably effective metaphor for Straub’s own lifting of plot elements from “The Dunwich Horror”. After all, the original idea came from Arthur Machen, an Englishman, who set “The Great God Pan” in the woods of England. But the notion was torn apart and reconstructed in the wilds of New England by H.P. Lovecraft, born and raised in Providence…and now it’s been picked up again, torn apart and rebuilt in the American Midwest by Milwaukee-born Peter Straub. Pretty clever, eh? Well, I thought so. But perhaps I’m easily amused.
At any rate, I have to say that I enjoyed this book, and for me, that’s a relief; I’ve been enjoying Straub’s work less and less, in recent years. He’s veered too far from the darkly lyrical quality which made Ghost Story such a joy to read, and his last novel, The Hellfire Club, was an ugly and banal little story which gave me very little pleasure. Entirely too much time was spent dragging the audience through mundane and unpleasant details: watching the villain butcher people like pigs, for example, or the repeated rape and constant bullying of the female protagonist.
Still, Straub’s obsessions are manifest even in his worst and most pedestrian work. His books are always about the hidden sin that makes horror happen: the old betrayal, the ugly scar, the suppressed pain so great that it twists the world out of shape, and brings on insanity and death. In his best work, the contrast between the seeming normalcy of Midwestern American towns and the secret Hell that boils underneath that placid surface is always part of the horror. Mr. X is no exception to this rule of thumb, and it’s one of the better books he’s written in the past decade. In fact, it was so complex and clever that I actually enjoyed it more on the second time through, when I could appreciate the intricacy with which he’d spun the web.
In short, this is good clean fun for fans of Straub or fans of Lovecraft, and if you like both, it’s a clear winner! You might want to check it out, especially if you’re likely to get the in-jokes. It’s always good to see a dutiful grandson paying his respects.