If You Could See Me Now (Peter Straub)

The blurb of my copy of the book manages to drop three spoilers in the space of two sentences, and then reiterates one of the spoilers just in case I was slow on the uptake. I shall endeavor to avoid doing something similar. Straub brings class to horror unlike anyone I’ve ever read. He has literary tricks up his sleeve that will keep sophisticated readers happy throughout. He is a master of tone. And not just with the mystery he puts forth in this novel, but with the way he sets up our narrator as this haughty know-it-all faced with a town of plebeians that plague him. This book is a wonderful ride to take for that reason.

The story’s premise is great: as a pre-teen, the main character, Miles Teagarden, had a close and questionable relationship with his cousin, Alison. One night in 1955 they go skinny-deeping in a quarry, and make a pact to reunite exactly twenty years on. But only Miles left the quarry alive. Twenty years later, Miles returns to his hometown, convinced that his cousin Alison will honour the pact. He moves back into his family’s old home, ostensibly to write his thesis on DH Lawrence, but more likely to keep a childhood promise. Right off the bat, things go poorly for him. A girl has been murdered and strangers are greeted with suspicion, and Miles himself didn’t exactly have the best reputation when he left. Miles exacerbates the situation by being generally clueless, clumsy, rude, and not a little bit cracked in the head.

Soon he is surrounded by hostile neighbours, including his cousin Duane. His only allies are an old great-aunt and Duane’s teenage daughter. Another girl goes missing, suspicion and resentment turn into violence and rage. Then one or two ugly secrets from the past, as is often the case in books like these, come back to haunt the guilty and the innocent alike. Miles is an academic, so the book is mostly written in a rather purple, prolix style, which, in fairness, Straub pulls off very well, and it does heighten Miles’ sense of alienation from the farmers and shopkeepers and housewives he collides with. As a character, you do want to reach into the book and slap a bit of sense into him, but it’s also clear just how unhinged he has become.

It’s easy to become immersed in the dreamlike ambience of this novel, and just when you (and Miles) are certain about who’s committing the murders, you are yanked in another direction entirely. In If You Could See Me Now, it seems you can go home again, but you’ll wish you hadn’t. The author intersperses the supernatural with the mundane, transforming the merely threatening with the terrifying and inescapable. As a murder mystery it’s a compelling read; as a ghost story, it’s strange, chilling and spooky. He just about manages to merge the two by the end, but this isn’t his strongest book by any means – the abrupt ending, where Straub decides to just stop, does feel a little cheap – but its still a worthy book.

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Comments

  1. Excellent review! I’ve only read one of Straub’s books and will have to give this one a go too, he seems to have the knack for creating instantly fascinating plot premises.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for commenting! I find Straub to be a more subtle and disturbing writer than Stephen King.

    Like

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