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Onyx reviews: Mr. X  by Peter Straub

Mr. X marks a return to the realm of the paranormal for Straub, though his recent novels, such as The Hellfire Club, have been terrifying and suspenseful even in the absence of the supernatural.

Ned Dunston has had a tumultuous life. His itinerant mother, Star, has passed him around to numerous foster homes in his youth. The identity of his father is a mystery. Every year on his birthday, Ned has a terrifying seizure wherein he is transported somewhere to witness one of a series of brutal murders. "Mr. X" is the name that Ned gives to the figure he sees committing the crimes.

As his 35th birthday approaches, Ned is drawn back to his mother's home town, Edgerton, Illinois, by the overwhelming—and accurate—premonition that his mother is dying. there, Ned becomes engrossed in unraveling the mystery of the Dunstons. He learns that the family, represented by Star's three surviving aunts, has been rumored to possess wild powers, including teleportation, telekinesis, second sight, levitation, and the occasional tendency to reduce people to green puddles of ooze. Ned realizes that his mother's motivation in giving him to foster care was to isolate him from the Dunston family, and its many dark secrets.

Ned's investigations into his family center around the identity of his father. On her deathbed, his mother provides Ned with a name: Edward Reinhart. Ned delves into the history of this shadowy figure, a man obsessed by the other-worldly writings of H.P. Lovecraft. Reinhart, it seems, did not treat Lovecraft's novels of Elder Gods as fiction. Many people in Edgerton, including Ned's relatives, are reluctant to talk to him about Reinhart.

Everything in Edgerton is inter-connected and the past has roots which stretch into the present. The deeper Ned explores, the broader the mystery becomes. Ned learns that he has a twin brother, a doppelganger snatched away at birth who has inherited and mastered many of the Dunston family abilities. Ned finds himself involved with two attractive women and becomes the prime suspect in a number of brutal murders.

Straub evokes the feel of Lovecraft in chapters narrated by Mr. X, who writes in his journal, addressing the Elder Gods and Far-flung Entities to whom he has devoted his murderous and misguided life. Mr. X believes that his son will be the agent of his destruction, but is confused when he learns that there are actually two sons.

Through his brother Robert, Ned unravels the Dunston powers within himself. As their birthday approaches, Ned begins to understand the link between his mysterious father, Mr. X, his mother and some of the founding families of Edgerton.

Straub has fun with names of a number of peripheral characters, such as Minor Keyes and Pearlie Gates. The old town, the core of Edgerton, is Lovecraftian, with shadowy, winding streets named Mutton, Treacle, Pitch and Wax. It is deep in the bowels of this dark inner city that the final story of Mr. X is told.

"Every time I think I finally understand something, I have to start all over again at the beginning," Ned complains near the end of the novel. The same might also be said of the reader, who may need a family tree to keep track of the intricate plot of Mr. X . In his blurb on the back cover, Stephen King says "the plot is challenging, the characters are intriguing in their complexity." Truer words were never spoken. Even so, the tale is chilling, occasionally visceral and spine-tingling, and always compelling.

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