By Peter Straub
Peter Straub’s Shadowland takes a whole mess of fairy tales and weaves an intricate web of horror around them. It is basically told in two parts, the first of which revolves around a group of young students at Carson, a strict private school that shuns all forms of individuality and creativity. Our protagonists here are Del, who wants desperately to be a great magician like his uncle, and Tom, his unsure sidekick who is literally overflowing with untapped potential. Our antagonists are headmaster Broome and the senior bully with the apt name of Skeleton. Together, the boys must persevere through the hardships and trials of the institution, hopefully coming out with their wits and souls intact.
Toward the end of the year, however, a tragedy changes the face of the school forever. With this weighing on their minds, Del and Tom venture across the country to spend the summer with Del’s uncle, the great Coleman Collins, which brings us to part two.
Coleman’s extravagant estate is the titular Shadowland, which turns out to be just as strict and rigid as Carson. Coleman teaches the boys his special blend of magic and abuses them both emotionally and physically. When Coleman tells Tom that he, and not Del, is to become his successor, Tom realizes that this is no smoke-and-mirrors parlor trickery. This is the real deal, the black arts that nightmares and madmen are made of. He’s forced to choose between the “low road” of normalcy and possibly death, or the mystical path of wealth and damnation. Either way, Coleman is not about to let him go without a fight.
The first part of the book, with its references to bop and jazz legends is the epitome of horror-hip, much like Straub's impeccable short story "Pork-Pie Hat" (which inspired me to look into his novels to begin with). Once the boys venture to Shadowland, the hipsterism diminishes somewhat but the action and scares pick up. Toward the end of the book, the momentum does seem to slow, but leaves you overall satisfied. Straub's style of writing is engaging and rather schizophrenic, and his work is a welcome addition to the genre. Fans of films such as Lord Of Illusions, take note of this book.