Ever wonder how a serial killer comes into being? Horror master Peter Straub has. And in his first singly published novella A Special Place: The Heart of a Dark Matter, that’s exactly what he does—and the end result is a hideous, graphic, startling, and absorbing story that is not easily put down once your eyes begin to trace the carefully pointed text.
Fans of Straub will know immediately that this novella serves as a back-story for his novel A Dark Matter (published in 2010), but those who have not read the novel (I had not) will not miss anything, as this novella is self-contained and self-satisfying on its own. The story opens by presenting the reader with Keith Hayward, a charming but disaffecting young man who has just dismembered a cat. Keith’s mom is concerned about the boy, so she asks her brother-in-law, Uncle Till, to have a word with him.
Charismatic Uncle Till has a terrible secret, one that he shares subtly with young Keith, basically because he recognizes an initial trait of his own. Rather than chastise the boy, Till begins to instruct him discretely but intensely on the ways of becoming an effective serial killer (he has been a successful one for decades—he’s known in the newspapers as the “Ladykiller”). Part of the instruction involves the securing of a “special place,” where Keith can begins to harness his skills, first on animals but subsequently transitioning over to human beings.
Along the way, Keith acquires his own “Renfield,” a young man by the name of Tomek Miller, a submissive who is bullied in grotesque ways by other kids in school. In exchange for protection, Miller becomes Keith’s “friend,” servicing him in ways that are best left to the imagination. As Keith becomes stronger and bolder, Miller is the linchpin to Keith’s unraveling as a serial killer. And Uncle Till slowly serves as puppet master, leading to one of the most disturbing end sequences ever put into print.
Make no mistake—Peter Straub is an undisputed master of reality-based horror. Straub eschews the supernatural, instead painting realistic pictures of human atrocities that most of us wonder about but shy away from. Now, Straub understands well the nature of horror itself, painting only in the peripheries and enabling the reader to fill out the details. His technique is flawless, as we are now shown everything, but our sadistic little brains are more than happy to fill in the most disturbing of blanks.
The best example of this approach is the film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Many viewers who have seen the film will claim that it was a bloody experience. Careful examination, however, reveals that there is little blood during the entire run of the movie. Rather, it’s the way Tobe Hooper put the film together that enabled viewers to think the film was a bloodbath. That is why a film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains a classic even today.
Straub’s construction of an “evil family tree” is one not easily forgotten. Given the engrossment of this story, I cannot wait to read A Dark Matter. For those of you who have read and enjoyed A Dark Matter, A Special Place: The Heart of a Dark Matter is an essential read.