A Dark Matter/Skylark Review at B&N Review

(No, this post is not about the song, although the song kicks ass.)

The Barnes & Noble Review has posted my piece on Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter. Originally, the review focused more equally on both the Doubleday version of the novel and Subterranean Press’s version (titled The Skylark), but for space reasons and the fact that The Skylark is not available to most readers the published review focuses on The Skylark only inasmuch as it provides insight into A Dark Matter. There are some spoilers that you can avoid by skipping the “In what kind of horror” paragraph, although given Straub’s focus on the characters rather than the events, they’re not, in an odd way, spoilers.

The review as published does reflect my point of view accurately—and the editors there did a great job re the repurposing—but I’ll be using the full 2,500-word version of the review in my nonfiction collection Monstrous Creatures.

Note: Subterranean Press still has copies of The Skylark available. I highly recommend picking up a copy.

This bit that was dropped I want to post here, though:

Another decision that works in A Dark Matter’s favor is the absence of an extended novella-length passage detailing the full extent of Hayward’s depravity—this depravity condensed down to a few pages near the end. The extended version in The Skylark constitutes the best fictional account of a psychopath, and a psychopath’s relationship to his mentor, that I have ever read. It’s a classic of deep, disturbing characterization, merciless and oddly moving. As a test of Straub’s ability to inhabit a loathsome character and understand that character, it’s perhaps unparalleled in modern literature.

But the section also places extreme emphasis on a character that, while important, is still peripheral to the main characters. In The Skylark, which relies more on multiple points of view throughout the narrative, the scene seems more appropriate, but in the new structure Straub has built for himself in A Dark Matter, Hayward’s point of view would have seemed out of place—it would, in fact, have eclipsed the true core of the book, far exceeding in emotional complication anything that happens to the four friends. In Skylark in particular, horror for Hayward’s actions and a wretched pity for his victims, often outweighs, for example, our feelings about The Eel. Perhaps in part because Straub, through Harwell, keeps telling us The Eel is special and wonderful, but she’s never allowed to demonstrate these qualities in actual scenes.

I should note too that I read The Skylark, then read Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and after that read A Dark Matter. This had an interesting effect on me, in that Bolano’s novel is in an odd sense about a vanishing point in the distance that 2666 never reaches. I read an interpretation of 2666 that basically suggested that the novel is about an event that occurs in the year 2666 (perhaps not literally that year), toward which all of the events and characters, and perhaps their descendents, are moving. And we just get a glimpse of the road toward that point—that the absence of that culminating event creates a powerful ghost or absence hanging over 2666. This certainly dovetails with my reading of Bolano’s novel. Especially since in the foreground of the novel, of the words themselves, you have another absence: the absence at ground zero of the various characters in the different parts of the novel meeting up at novel’s end. That potential event also occurs in the future, beyond the book’s last pages. This made me view the occult event I’d encountered in The Skylark very differently when I read A Dark Matter–although this difference is somewhat peripheral to the review posted at B&N Review. This difference is that I no longer believed it was at all important what happened in the meadow in Straub’s novel. I no longer believed, from a writer’s point of view, that knowing what the characters had seen made any difference. In short, from a writer’s point of view I now wanted a third version of Straub’s novel: one rearranged and structured to leave a hole in the middle that was the event in the meadow. I didn’t want different interpretations of the event. I didn’t want the event at all. I wanted only what happened before and what happened after, and I wanted that from multiple points of view. Again, this did not impact reviewing the actual novel in front of me. But it began to make me think, then, too, of certain of Karen Joy Fowler’s novels and stories, in which an absence shows the shape of a thing–what she leaves out haunts what is left in.

Anyway, something is bubbling up in my writer’s brain about all of this that’s going to fuel a future story or novel, I’m sure.

(No, not this Sky—…well, actually, this one kinda relates.)

(No, this post isn’t about that dark matter, either.)


  1. Eric Elliott says


    Do you have a recommendation on which book should be read first; The Skylark or A Dark Matter? Or does it not make any difference.

  2. says

    That’s a great question. I think it’s almost like you do need a combination. Like, read the first few chapters of Skylark and then read the opening of Dark Matter, and from there you could probably read Dark Matter until you get to the point where you really want to know more about Hayward, and then you’d go off and read the 60 pages or so about Hayward in Skylark. It’d almost be like a hypertext link to more information.

    But my viewpoint is also somewhat contaminated from having read Skylark first.