- The Washington Times - Friday, October 29, 2010

By Peter Straub
Pegasus Books, $12.95 136 pages

It’s a good thing this book is short. If longer, instead of frightening it would be horrifying. On the cover, scaremeister extraordinaire Stephen King writes, “When Peter Straub turns on all his jets, no one in the scream factory can equal him.”

With his very first sentence, Mr. Straub explains both his title and subtitle: ” ‘You’re going to need a special place only you know about,’ Uncle Till told Keith Hayward.” By setting his tale in Milwaukee, Wis., in 1958, Mr. Straub gives himself a blank canvas of Eisenhower-era comfort and conformity on which his colors gradually change from pale rose to blood red. Bit by scary bit, the reader’s unease gives way to fearful trepidation.

Uncle Till is the charming ne’er-do-well brother of Keith’s father. Color the father clueless, but color his wife, Keith’s mother, suspicious. She can’t understand why they have to house Uncle Till for weeks at a time after he suddenly appears, uninvited, sometimes by cab or bus, and sometimes in a nice car that belongs to “some woman.” Whatever Till’s game may be, she doesn’t approve of it or of him, and she’s increasingly certain that 12-year-old Keith’s near-adoration of his uncle is both misplaced and unwise.

Keith couldn’t care less about his mother’s disapproval. He sees Uncle Till’s secret life as something to aspire to because he, Keith, is already on a similar path. And, of course, Uncle Till has figured this out. So he tutors his oddball nephew in matters dark.

” ‘Let’s say you get a place like that,’ Till says, ‘because I’m saying like, what if? If you get a special place all your own, you should be able to lock it up, so no one else can get in. What goes on in that room is private. Nobody should know about it but you. See, if let’s say you happen to go down this path, you’re gonna have all kinds of secrets.”

Keith already has at least one secret: He knows why several neighborhood cats have gone missing. But Mr. Straub is too good and experienced to tell us that right out. He hints, he alludes, he teases. And then after a while he does come right out with it. By this time, Keith already has a special place, a basement room in an abandoned building in a rundown strip mall half a mile from his house.

Mr. Straub begins to increase the tension by having Uncle Till tell the boy two important things. One is that the police may have an interest in him. ” ‘I didn’t do any of this stuff they’re trying to pin on me. … You know what’s going to happen? One day some cop is going to jump out of an alley right in front of you. This cop is going to ask you, do you know where we can find your Uncle Till? Is he staying at your house, Keith? We just want to talk to him, can’t you give us a hand?’…”

The second important thing is Till’s explanation of how criminals should act “in the real world.”

“Here’s what they’d do. They’d get women to give them their money, and then they’d kill them. I don’t know how they’d do it, but for sure, if was me, I’d use a knife.”

The uncle also tells his nephew that his favorite Hitchcock film is not, as with most people, “Vertigo,” but the much darker “Shadow of a Doubt.” Till thinks the studio screwed up the ending by having the good guys win.

Fast-forward four years, and in addition to his special place, Keith now has a special friend, though that may not be the right word to describe his connection to Miller, your basic social outcast with no discernible skills or saving graces. In one of the book’s least-plausible scenes, Keith rescues Miller by staring down a group of thuggish bullies, after which Miller owes him big time.

Keith shows Miller his secret room, and then, after debasing him, promotes him to “assistant curator” of his dead animal trophy room.

Another two years pass, and, as predicted, a cop does show up to question Keith about his Uncle Till, but Keith gives nothing away, even though he now strongly suspects that the “Ladykiller” the headlines have been screaming about is his beloved uncle. Finally, when Keith blurts out his suspicions, Till surprises him by saying, “‘Could be time I showed you my special place. Would you like that?’

” ‘I’d like that,’ Keith said.”

He takes the boy to an empty bar, and then to a basement room that could easily double as a morgue. You don’t need me to quote the author’s description of this chamber of horrors; I’m sure your imagination is way ahead of me. By admitting his double life, Uncle Till bonds - binds? - his nephew to him.

Soon it’s Christmastime, and the novella ends with as eerie (and sick) an exchange of presents between man and boy as you are apt to find anywhere in the scream factory.

If your taste does not run in this direction, or your stomach for such writing is weak, consider yourself warned. Peter Straub has long been acknowledged as a master of the genre, and his fans will not be disappointed. Note: The end of the novel is not the end of the book. The last 12 pages are a critical analysis of “A Special Place” written by Gary K. Wolfe of Roosevelt University, a prominent critic whose specialty is science fiction, fantasy and horror. He makes several interesting points.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.



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