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Bookends: Reality and Fiction Blend in Two Related Novels July 5, 2012

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: Reality and Fiction Blend in Two Related Novels
By Dan Davidson
April 3, 2012
– 942 pages –

lost boy lost girl
by Peter Straub
Ballantine Books
336 pages

in the night room
by Peter Straub
Ballantine Books
368 pages

I was a couple of chapters into in the night room (the title is in lower case) when I found myself reading references to lost boy lost girl, the other Peter Straub novel sitting unread on my bookshelves. It was telling me that lost boy lost girl was a novel that had been written by Tim Underhill, one of the viewpoint characters in the book I was reading. This was a clue that I was wandering into the realm of metafiction and that I really needed to read the other book first.
As it turned out that this was essential. You can read lost boy lost girl and stop there, but in the night room actually will not make nearly as much sense if you read it by itself.
The first book is a fairly conventional mystery/fantasy, but told in an unconventional way. Underhill (who has already appeared in Koko, Mystery and The Throat) returns to his boyhood home in Millhaven to comfort his estranged brother, whose wife has recently committed suicide and whose son is about to disappear.
While much of the narrative is told from Underhill’s viewpoint (some from his journal even) there are other viewpoints as well, notably that of his nephew, Mark, who has been corresponding with his uncle by email.
In addition, there is a lot of moving around in time, like those television shows that start out at some dramatic point in the action and freeze while a caption appears saying “36 hours earlier” or something like that.
We learn that Nancy Underhill is dead early in the book, but then we skip back to experience the weeks before her death from Mark’s viewpoint, up to the day when he finds her lying in the bathtub with blood colouring the water.
Even before that, we learn of Mark’s fascination with the abandoned house next door, how it pulls at him and his friend, Jimbo, and how they begin to study everything they can find out about it.
When Mark vanishes, it becomes Tim’s story again, as he tries to retrace the events that led up to the boy’s disappearance.
At the same time, there is a series of murders in Millhaven, and it appears that these are following the pattern laid down decades earlier. The Sherwood Park Killer conjures up memories of Joseph Kalendar, who lived in the mysterious house, who was a cousin to Nancy, who had a daughter that vanished. According to what Mark tells his best friend, Jimbo, who tells it to Tim, the ghost of that girl, who now calls herself Lucy Cleveland, has been appearing to him in the strange secret passages built into the house. They have fallen in love and he somehow planned to “go away” with her, whatever that might mean.
There is a real Sherwood Park Killer and he is found, but Mark never is, and so the story appears to end.
But wait, lost girl lost boy is, we subsequently learn, a fantasy novel that Tim Underhill wrote in order to help himself cope with the loss of his nephew.
We learn about that in the next book, in the night room, where we are also following the life of Willy Bryce Patrick, winner of the Newberry Award for a Young Adult novel of that same name. Willy has lost her husband and daughter, has spent some time in an institution, recovering, and is now engaged to be married, but all is not well with her. After a tree falls on her absent fiancée’s study, she discovers photos that appear to prove that he engineered the death of her husband and possibly her daughter. She flees, pursued by his minions.
Tim Underhill, meanwhile, has begun receiving more cryptic email messages like the ones he used to get from Mark, only these are from dead people he used to know.  Then there are the visions he’s having of his dead little sister, Alice, who appears to him in Wonderland garb and mouths messages he can’t quite manage to lip-read. He has also had an unsettling encounter with a very strange and abusive book collector and has begun to have a lot of difficulty working on his latest book, which is called in the night room, and is about the life of a woman named Willy Patrick.
In fact, the passages about Willy we have been reading are the novel that Tim has been writing, though that doesn’t become clear for a while.
In writing the previous novel it turns out that Tim made an error of cosmic proportions, one which causes the dimensions of fact, fiction and the afterlife to somehow blend together. Willy is catapulted from the world of Tim’s fiction into the world of his reality, and the two of them have to travel together to Millhaven to set things right and correct the story he had written in his previous book.
Tim is apprised of this necessity by an afterlife spirit named Cyrax, who communicates with him (often in annoying textspeak, if U R a-bull to reedit) via email.
As you can see, these are two books with a lot of narrative layers to them.  The caution is that they should probably be read in the correct order, and that you have to keep alert for abrupt changes in the meaning of events. That said, it was an interesting ride.




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