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The publication of Mr. X in 1999 proved to be Peter Straub's return to supernatural horror, a genre in which he'd established himself throughout the 1970s and 80s and for which he still most recognized. The work received general acclaim from critics, as well as the Bram Stoker Award in the novel category. It's the third of Straub's novels I've read, following Shadowland (1980; read many years ago) and its follow-up Floating Dragon (1982; read in 2013). Though I tend to lose interest in far-flung supernatural elements, I enjoyed all three books mostly for their character development which surpasses that of most horror-labeled authors. Though I haven't yet tried any of the thrillers he was focused on during the 1990s and later, these might appeal to me more, and I understand they were quite well received.
The main plot and its related threads begin well into the novel, as protagonist Ned Dunstan returns to his home town of Edgerton, Illinois, sensing that his mother is in danger. In Edgerton he takes on the task of discovering his father's identity, a man seemingly obsessed with Lovecraft to the point that he believes his works are fact. Over the course of a few days, Ned is being pursued by a dark entity he refers to as Mr. X, meets his doppelgänger, gets to know his eccentric family while learning their many secrets, and discovers that he has some latent supernatural powers. Amid all this he finds the time to fall in love with the wife of one of the town's wealthier and more influential personages, and thereby becomes embroiled in town affairs. A busy man, this is a busy novel to keep any character occupied.
The novel contains a general mix of family mystery, the supernatural, Lovecraft parody and some horror violence to transcend genre (it is a supernatural horror mystery, with strong elements of family drama along with small town life, which Straub presents with great realism). The novel is complex in both genre and plot, its mystery quite enmeshed in detail, and is quite a fascinating read on many levels.
What is most interesting is that in a novel whose plot is based entirely on some wacky supernatural possibilities, the characters (and the town) are presented with plain realism. Supernatural abilities aside, relationships are presented in complex terms and personalities are attentively delineated. An example of the complexities is the treatment of Ned's lover Laurie Hatch, and here I will offer up some minor spoilers.
Like any standard youthful crush, Laurie comes into Ned's life and, through his eyes, is presented as a kind of female ideal: a beautiful woman, highly compatible, who proves to be actively supportive, sympathetic and great in bed. Yet the ideal wears away as Laurie, over the course of mere days, falls from her the pedestal Ned has placed her on through some remarks from her almost ex-husband that ring believable. As the ideal dissipates, she becomes a real person in Ned's eyes, and our hero must contend with certain aspects of her personality that are not only non-idealistic, but downright threatening. Ambiguities abound around sweet mistreated Mrs. Hatch, who might in fact be an active treasure hunter. Moreover, the complexities with an inheritance set up for Laurie's son Cobden intermingled with her active involvement in Ned's affairs eventually point to the possible truth of Hatch's accusations. At the end we are left with an ambiguous portrait of Ned's lover, and whether she is innocent victim or treasure hunter, their relationship, should it continue, is irreparably marred by the possibilities suggested in the theories that Ned assembles regarding the timeline of Laurie's involvement in his affairs. Perfectly clear, no?
While I generally preferred Floating Dragon while reading, the ending of Mr. X was far more satisfying, and though I was more engaged with Floating Dragon, in a technical sense Mr. X is the better achieved book, and I believe through time it will grow on me. The way Mary Lawson's Crow Lake, which I enjoyed very much while reading, nonetheless grew on me over time primarily due to its complexities and character development.
The novel is certainly not perfect. There is a certain neurosis in the way characters are described via conversation. Straub feels the need to detail mannerisms to a point that it interferes with the story development and is at times genuinely annoying. Like Floating Dragon and many a supernatural novel, Mr. X does not need to be as long as it is. The lengthy development of Ned and his nemesis in the earlier parts of the book, from childhood to school experiences are utterly fascinating and well paced, so that when the older Ned arrives at Edgerton the change of focus and pace, along with the detail orientation, forces the second half to drag at times. Yet a minor complaint for a complex work.