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Onyx reviews: In the Night Room by Peter Straub

Peter Straub and Stephen King are familiar enough with each other's works that elements from one writer may inevitably bleed over into the other's. It shouldn't be surprising, then, to find Straub exploring the relationship between a writer and his creations, though in a vastly different from what King did in his Dark Tower series.

Straub periodically reinvents himself to make his writing more accessible. In the 1980s, starting with Koko, he jettisoned some of the claustrophobic elements of his style. Last year, with lost boy lost girl, Straub decided to write shorter novels more frequently instead of producing the dense bricks of novels he was known for. That book was a critical and popular success, so it appears his decision was wise.

He continues this new approach with In the Night Room, which is a sort-of sequel to lost boy lost girl. The protagonist is once again Tim Underhill, a Straub surrogate first introduced in Koko. lost boy lost girl is recast as Tim's most recent novel, and the events in that book are reinterpreted as Tim's fictionalized efforts to come to terms with his nephew's disappearance and probable murder.

As the book nears publication, Tim is accosted by a man who tells him that he didn't get the story right, and that his lies—his fictions—will have profound repercussions. Tim once had a near-death experience that has given him a unique relationship with the recently departed, which may explain why he is seeing the ghost of his dead sister and getting e-mail messages from deceased high school acquaintances. A cantankerous spiritual guide called Cyrax tells Tim that he needs to fix what he did wrong in his novel, or there will be chaos between the mundane and spiritual realms.

In the Night Room's second storyline tells about Willy Patrick, an author of children's novels. She recently became engaged to a man who has started controlling her life while hiding details of his own. After uncovering shocking information about her first husband's death, Willy flees from her virtual confinement and embarks on a collision course with Tim, an encounter that occurs on a rainy night in Manhattan while Tim is at a book signing. Once they come to terms with what they learn about their relationship to each other, Tim and Willy set out for Millhaven, Straub's thinly disguised version of Milwaukee, to unravel the missing details about the evil house-once owned by a serial killer Tim wrote about in lost boy lost girl and the "night room" that lies within.

Straub creates an uneasy alliance with his readers, who can never be sure how many levels deep his fiction goes. He allows for the possibility that anything Underhill narrates may actually be part of his fictionalized journal. Underhill sees fiction as a means to reach a kind of truth he wouldn't otherwise have been able to discover. This allows Straub to tip the story on its head and, by doing so, comment on the nature and purpose of fiction.

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