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Onyx reviews: Magic Terror: 7 Tales by Peter Straub

In Magic Terror, Peter Straub gathers together seven short stories and novellas that he has published in various anthologies in the past decade. While Straub is often associated with supernatural horror, the terror in this collection—with the exception of a ghost or two—derives from real life. Serial killers, professional hitmen, soldiers in Vietnam.

The collection opens with "Ashputtle," Straub's recreation of Cinderella (Ashputtle was Cinderella's name in the original Grimm story). The narrator is Mrs. Asch, an overweight kindergarten teacher who delights in terrorizing her wards...and more. Asch lost her mother at an early age and was tormented by the requisite wicked stepmother. Straub adopts a gleefully wicked voice as he reaches inside the head of the warped woman.

"Isn't It Romantic" is a straight narrative about a professional assassin, known only as N, on assignment in the Basque region of France. N suspects that he is the mouse rather than the cat this time. He struggles to carry out his assignment while trying to keep another unknown assassin from completing his—or her—mission.

"The Ghost Village" is a modified excerpt from Straub's novel Koko. It tells of a group of American soldiers who encounter a deserted village. The protagonist, Tim Underhill, learns that even in the midst of the atrocities and horror of war, people are still able to do evil to their own. Framing this vignette is another story about a disturbed American soldier who is eager to get back home to take care of a man who has molested his young son.

Originally published under the name "Fee," "Bunny is Good Bread" is a dark and disturbing account of a young boy, Fielding, who witnesses the agonizing death of his mother and the transformation of his father into a serial killer. The story is an excised section of Straub's novel The Throat that lends motivation to a character in that book as well as standing on its own as an exploration of how a series of psychological stresses at an early age can produce a monster.

"Porkpie Hat" is a moody tale set mostly in Mississippi in the 1920s. "Hat" is a musician who is interviewed by an eager young jazz aficionado on Halloween evening in New York City. The musician is more interested in telling his own story than in answering the young man's questions. The evening has brought to mind the events of another Halloween many years earlier when the musician, then a young boy, and a friend had a surreal encounter in a segregated Southern town ripe with conflict and mysticism.

"Hunger, An Introduction," is a rambling narrative told from the point of view of a ghost who is reliving the events that have brought him to his sorry end. Frank Wardwell is another disassociated individual who lives by his own rules without concern for their effect on others. The narrator is unlikable and unsympathetic, a pompous pseudointellectual trapped in a mundane life who cannot accept the limitations of his situation and his personality.

An appreciation of the closing story, "Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff," relies on knowledge of Herman Melville's novella Bartleby the Scrivener. Straub takes that classic story and bends it into a darkly comic tale of revenge. The narrator's wife is having an affair with his rival. The title characters are summoned to carry out his retribution. They move into his office and become increasingly unruly and uncontrollable in much the same way that Bartleby became dissociated and problematic for the narrator in Melville.

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