In his first post-Ghost Story novel, Peter Straub turned almost wholly away from the horror genre, and instead published Shadowland, a fantasy novel that is deeply informed by fairy tale and myth. It is a deeply frustrating novel, but not an uninteresting one. Definitely not.
I read this novel once before, in high school, but when I reread it recently, I found that I remembered literally none of it. Nothing. That's happened before with books I've not read in years, and my assumption in each case has been that I simply didn't respond to the book the first time, not even in a particularly negative manner.
In rereading the book for this blog, I read through the novel once the old-fashioned way, and then gave it a second go-round via audiobook. And here is where something curious happened: I enjoyed the novel while reading it, but detested it when listening to it.
How to explain this?
The audio version of Shadowland is read by William Dufris, a highly capable reader who brings a lot of personality to the tale. And in some cases, I think he overdoes things significantly. This is a problem I have with audiobook readers from time to time; I cringe, for example, any time I see that Craig Wasson is reading a new King book, because I intensely dislike his style of delivering dialogue. So it is with Dufris here. One character, Coleman Collins, sounds almost exactly like a caricature of George Takei; his voices for the child characters are realistic, but annoying; and if I never have to hear him enact a makeout scene between two teenagers again, I'll be richer for it.
My point in bringing this up initially is to point out that since I listened to the book more recently than I read it, I'm a bit concerned that my disenjoyment of the experience is going to unfairly color my opinions on the novel itself. If so, well ... so be it. I'll do my best to set it aside, but no promises.
Shadowland is the story of Tom Flanagan, a prep school student in Arizona who befriends a classmate, Del Nightingale, with whom he bonds over a shared interest in performing magic tricks. The two also bond over their hatred for Steve "Skeleton" Ridpath, an older student who bullies freshmen in general, and Flanagan and Nightingale in particular. The contentious relationship between these three eventually results in dire events at the school.
Halfway through, the novel changes settings, following Tom and Del on a trip to Shadowland, the home of Del's uncle, Coleman Collins, who is a retired stage magician. He's also a very powerful magician, meaning that he can actually do magic, as opposed to magic tricks. Collins is, to put it mildly, not a very nice person, and it turns out that his motivations for bringing the two boys for a visit might not be the most admirable.
In writing that brief summary of the novel's setup, it sounds like a good, interesting idea for a book, and as I was reading it, I was indeed interested throughout. As it ended, though, I found myself wondering if the novel had actually been substantive and involving, or if it merely possessed the illusion of those qualities. I then found myself wondering if possessing the illusion of those qualities is actually the same as possessing those qualities.
I'm reminded of something Edward James Olmos (as Adama) says about love on an episode of Battlestar Galactica. He's talking to Chief Tyrol about the Chief's relationship with Boomer, the former fighter pilot who is later revealed to be a Cylon agent (i.e., a robot). "Did you love her?" Adama asks. "Thought I did," replies Tyrol. "Well," replies Adama, "when you think you love somebody, you love them. That's what love is: thoughts."
The revamped Battlestar Galactica is a pretty great show, and wisdom can be found there without a heck of a lot of effort. That exchange is one of many that have stuck with me, and in contemplating after the fact whether Shadowland is a substantive novel or a novel with the illusion of substance, I find myself wondering if the distinction makes any difference. Is it even a distinction?
Maybe, but if so, I think it's an unimportant one. The bottom line is that if a book actively spurs me to deeper contemplation of the very process of deeper contemplation, then by default, it must be doing something substantive. Boomer might've been a Cylon, but the Chief loved her, whether he wants to admit it or not. By the same token, Shadowland is a substantive novel, regardless of whether the substance amounts to a heck of a lot in the final analysis. This blog's jury is still out on that one, but hopes to have a verdict by the time this post reaches its conclusion; so stay tuned, y'all.
Now, I realize that for vast swathes of the public -- even those who find themselves reading a blog like this one -- conversations of this variety are immensely boring. I can practically hear people asking me, "Who gives a shit whether a novel is substantive or not? The better question is whether it's entertaining?" And I don't disagree with that idea, frankly. Despite that, if you're going to talk about art of any kind, you're eventually going to contemplate what makes it all tick. Otherwise, here's what your book reviews would sound like.
I read Shadowland by Peter Straub. It was long, and nothing really happened, except when the school caught on fire and the guy was crucified and Bugs Bunny showed up. I thought I liked the book while I was reading it, but then I got to the end and thought maybe I didn't like it that much.
And that's fine. To be honest, that's a neat summary of my opinion of Shadowland. Do you need to know more than that? Probably not. Do I need to say more than that? For your purposes, no; for my purposes, yes, because at this point in my life, I'm less interested in whether I like a book or not than I am in why I like it, or why I dislike it, or why I am conflicted about it.
I take it as a given that most people are not interested even in why they react a certain way to specific pieces of art, and that makes it doubly a given that those people will not be interested in why I react in whatever manner I react. This is fine by me, provided nobody tries to argue with me by means of the old "you're overthinking" gambit. That's when I lose my cool and turn into a Flame War soldier.
I'm in danger of digressing severely; let's get this ramble back on-course, and try to figure out why, exactly, I am conflicted about Shadowland.
Part of it, I think, has to do with the choice Straub made in terms of how he presents the narrative. The novel is told in a first-person perspective, by an unnamed narrator who was a classmate of Tom and Del's. He's heard bits and pieces of the Shadowland story from Tom over the years, and has decided -- possibly at Tom's passive suggestion -- to write a book about the incidents that he's heard about. We learn very little about this writer through whose perspective we are learning about what happened to Tom and Del; he takes place in virtually none of the events that comprise what most readers will think of as the story of the novel. And yet, because the entire thing is filtered through his consciousness, it would be an absolute failure on our part, as readers, to dismiss this unnamed man's importance as a character.
Are you annoyed yet? If so, join the club. I'm not a fan of the "unreliable narrator" technique in fiction, and here is a prime example of one. While reading the novel, I kept assuming that the narrator would eventually become more prominent, and that Straub's choice of him as a narrator would therefore gain context. With context would come meaning, and with meaning would come appreciation. I was convinced this would be the case right up until the final paragraph, but it never happened. The only significance the narrator has is that he is the vehicle by which the story is delivered to us.
In retrospect, I find myself wondering why Straub did not merely use a traditional omniscient point of view. After all, using the method he settled on, we cannot actually assume that any of the events of the novel -- except for the few brief scenes we get involving the narrator talking to various people -- actually occurred. Tom and Del may never have gone to Shadowland at all.
For all we know, Shadowland does not exist.
Here's the rub: this, obviously was not lost on Peter Straub. As a writer, you don't make a decision like that one lightly, or accidentally. So, that means that Straub must have felt that the narrative had something to gain by being presented as possibly never having actually existed. Straub wants us to think about whether Shadowland existed; he wants us to think about whether our narrator is making the entire story up, or whether he is faithfully reporting a pack of lies told to him by Tom Flanagan. Or, perhaps, Tom has been truthful, and the narrator has truthfully reported the entire thing. Who's to say?
Every reader will have to answer that question for himself, or herself, or perhaps throw the book across the room and, by telling it go to fuck itself, dodge the question altogether.
Thing is, you can't dodge the question. Whether you realize it or not, you're answering it -- or some version of it -- every single time you read a work of fiction. After all, it's fiction; it's a pack of lies, all strung together into a format that presents the illusion of truth. You've decided as a reader to accept the lie that "this all happened," but that doesn't make it less of a lie. So why, then, should it be inherently less interesting, or less valid, for the author to put that idea front and center of a novel?
It's a good question. I don't immediately have an answer for it, except to point out that this very blog post is an attempt to answer it. Or, failing that, it's an attempt to at least point out the necessity for the question. It's worth pointing out that the title I eventually settled on for this blog is "The Truth Inside The Lie." That title comes from the dedication to Stephen King's It, which posits the idea that fiction is the truth inside the lie, and that the truth of that particular fiction was this: the magic is real.
It and Shadowland have very little in common, but examining Shadowland through the prism of It's dedication is awfully tempting. It's even more tempting considering that the dedication struck enough of a nerve with so as to cause me to, years later, name a blog after it. In that dedication -- which, for the record, was addressed to King's three children -- King is making a persuasive argument: that storytelling is a powerful form of magic.
That very idea forms the core of Straub's Shadowland, and without accepting that idea, the reader is apt to feel lost, confused, and annoyed.
Perhaps this helps to explain the reaction I had to the audiobook. While reading Straub's novel for myself, I was able to buy into the idea that what I was reading was a sort of magic trick; while it was being read to me, I was not able to buy into that idea. In the end, I think it is as simple as that. While reading, I am able to focus on the thing that Straub wants me to focus on; while listening, I am distracted by the -- to my ears misplaced -- emphasis the reader puts on certain things, and therefore unable to concentrate on the substance of the text. Which, in this case, is the subtext, moreso than the text itself.
Let's have a look at a bit from Shadowland itself. A magician is telling two boys a story:
"Cats remind me of a true story," he said to the mesmerized boys, speaking as if he were merely yarning, as if nothing but entertainment was on his mind. "It's an old story, but the truest stories are very often the oldest ones. This was told by Sir Walter Scott to Washington Irving, and by Monk Lewis to the poet Shelley -- and to me by a friend of mine who actually saw it happen."A traveler, in other words my friend, was journeying on foot to the house of a companion -- not me -- where he was going to spend the night. He had been walking all day, and even though it was already late and night was coming on, he was tired enough to rest his feet when he came to a ruined abbey. He sat down, took off his boots, leaned against an iron fence, and began to rub his feet. An odd series of noises made him turn around and peer through the bars of the fence."Down below him, on the grassy floor of the old abbey, he saw a procession of cats. They were formed into two long equal lines, and were marching forward very slowly. Now, of course he had never seen anything like that before, and he bent forward to look more closely. It was then that he saw that the cats at the head of the procession were carrying a little coffin on their backs, and were making for, were slowly approaching, a small open grave. When my friend had seen the grave, he looked horrified back at the coffin borne by the lead cats, and noticed that on it sat a crown. As he watched, the lead cats began to lower the coffin into the grave."After that he was so frightened that he could not stay in that place a moment longer, and he thrust his feet into his boots and rushed on to the house of his friend. During dinner, he found that he could not keep from telling his friend what he had witnessed."He had scarcely finished when his friend's cat, which had been dozing in front of the fire, leaped up and cried, 'Then I am the King of the Cats!' and disappeared in a flash up the chimney. It happened, my friends -- yes, it happened, my charming little birds."-- from "Note: Tom in the Zanzibar," p. 9 (original hardback edition) of Shadowland
There is plenty to say about this section. Firstly, that's a grand folk tale, and I'd never heard it before encountering it in Shadowland.
Secondly, and more interestingly, as I think about the tale as Straub uses it here, I continually come back to the idea of the friend whom the traveler is visiting. Think of this man: his friend shows up, and begins telling this wild and unbelievable tale about a procession of cats carrying a coffin to an unmarked grave. Ludicrous, right? But then, the man's cat jumps up, verifies the truth of the tale by speaking, and then disappears up the chimney! It's one thing to be the traveler, who has seen some wild things that day; but by that point in the story, the traveler is at least somewhat accommodated to seeing the bizarre. His friend, on the other hand, has had the bizarre thrust upon him explicitly during the midst of a tale he is probably already writing off as some sort of tomfoolery on the part of his wandering friend. How amazing, how terrifying, that moment must be!
Ah, but we come back, now, to the question that has been dogging us in one way or another for the entirety of this post: did the traveler and the traveler's friend ever even exist? Or are they mere creations of Coleman Collins, who is telling this story to Tom and Del?
It's a deeper question that that, for we are not hearing the story from Coleman Collins himself. We are hearing it from the unnamed narrator of the novel, who has told us that he is "going to put it in the context in which Tom first heard it."
So, what we have is this: we are being told a story by a narrator, to whom it was (allegedly) told by Tom Flanagan, to whom it was (allegedly) told by Coleman Collin, to whom it was (allegedly) told by a friend of his, to whom it (allegedly) actually happened. This despite the fact that Collins -- again, allegedly -- has admitted to Tom that the tale was one handed down by a series of writers one to the next, including Washington Irving and Sir Walter Scott. This is one lie stacked on top of another on top of another.
And yet ... there is unquestionably a form of emotional truth at the center of the entire thing. Did the traveler's friend -- whose cat suddenly discovered himself to be the new King of the Cats -- ever exist? Possibly not. However, anyone hearing the story for the first time would be in something similar to the same emotional position that friend would have been in: hearing a ludicrous story that has a plot twist at the end, a plot twist that suddenly cats the entire story in a different light. There is no cat, but if you believe -- even if only with a small part of your mind -- that there is, then there IS a cat. If, then, that hypothetical cat -- by virtue of your surprise at the plot twist -- leaps up and speaks, then the entire story is true, if only for a fraction of a second and if only in some part of your mind.
Now, friends, if that ain't magic, I don't know what is.
Those ideas have tremendous resonance within the plot of the novel itself, but also within the scope of a reader's relationship with the novel. If you find ideas like this interesting, then the odds are decent that you will enjoy the novel; if you find them anathema, then you are well advised to give Shadowland a big ole skip.
I'd planned to say more about the novel, but to be honest, I think I've said approximately all that needs to be said, at least within the confines of this particular blog. It's a fascinating novel; it's a novel that undoubtedly has genius behind and at the heart of it. I enjoyed reading it, and there is a lot more that could be said about it. Ultimately, I think I'd say it is a great novel. It is, however, a frustrating one, because it is determined to go in directions other than the ones it seems like it ought to go in. It's a novel that I both love and hate, which is surely not an experience I'd want from every novel I read; but I'm okay with it having been my reaction to this novel, because it somehow seems appropriate.
Before I got, I do have a few other notes to make, if only so I have them written down someplace for future reference:
- A younger version of Miles Teagarden, the protagonist of If You Could See Me Now, makes an appearance. I thought that was pretty cool.
- One of the major elements of the novel includes "The Collector," which is a magical device Coleman Collins uses to do his dirty work. By this, I mean that he exerts magical control over certain people, whom he then uses to steal things, or to kill other people. Or, perhaps, simply to control them for the sake of controlling them. Going back to the idea of our unreliable and unnamed narrator, I am strongly tempted to assume that the reason he is so interested in Tom's story, and so determined to write it down, is because Tom has "Collected" him, and is using him for his own purposes. There is no direct evidence of this being the case, but it's an interesting idea.
- Given the private-school setting and the idea of magic, not to mention the plot point involving a train journey, I was utterly unable to not think about Harry Potter while reading this novel. Despite those surface similarities, Shadowland has about as much to do with Harry Potter as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo has to do with A Farewell to Arms. Not much.
- I'm not a fan of the way Straub writes characters he wants us to dislike. He has them shout and holler and gnash their teeth, and may as well have had them grow mustaches to twirl. Skeleton Ridpath is a particularly annoying character of this type.
- This will, I believe, be the final time I listen to an audiobook as a means of preparing to write a post about a book. I firmly believe the two are separate entities, though (obviously) related, and it probably makes a lot of sense for me to only treat audiobooks as audiobooks.
Thanks for reading! I'll be back again at some point soon, with one of two things: either a review of the Robert McCammon novel The Night Boat or a review of Owen King's collection We're All In This Together. I'm leaning toward the King review, but am as yet undecided.
Before either of those two things happens, though, I'm going to work on a review of Octopussy for You Only Blog Twice, my James Bond blog. I hope to see you there, and if not there, then here.
Either way, TTFN!