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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