Tuesday, April 29, 2014


"Long ago, when we all lived in the forest..."

                And Peter Straub Month is brought to a smashing close with Shadowland. There is one sentence I can use to describe this book, one that I'm surprised I'm using, but one that makes perfect sense:

Shadowland is what would happen if Lev Grossman hadn't failed when he wrote The Magicians

                  Now, that's a bold statement. And as a bold statement, it deserves some backing up, so here goes: With Shadowland, Peter Straub takes a few traditional concepts-- children growing up, an elderly magician teaching young people real magic, an enchanted forest visited by the young where the rules of reality don't exactly apply, and all the other conventions of things young adult fantasy novels love to use-- and he twists them around. Where he succeeds is that he never once condescends to the reader or blatantly disrespects them. He just shows them a new perspective on what they know, almost as if having a discussion of it. Shadowland begins pretty dark, that's a certainty, but most of the novels it's riffing on do as well. The difference is that the other novels do get somewhat lighter. The danger seems like it comes from outside the world, not from within. And that is where Shadowland differs. Because in Shadowland, the danger seems like it might come from within, too. Even the rules of magic sound fairly sinister, including such items as "The physical world is a bauble". But just why is it worth reading Shadowland, and why does it stand tall against all comers? 

Well, read on...

                 Shadowland is primarily about Tom Flanagan and Del Nightingale. Tom and Del meet each other at a prestigious private school in Arizona. where both of them are Freshmen. Throughout their Freshman year, the boys find they share an interest in magic tricks, particularly card tricks. But as the year continues on, a series of strange incidents start to happen. A psychotic upperclassman nicknamed "Skeleton" seems to take a special interest in them for some reason. A man in a long coat appears, and Del seems uneasy when he sees him. And then there's the curious business with a rival school's crystal owl mascot vanishing, then reappearing only to fly out of a piano lid. But it is the year's end that is most disturbing, where Del and Tom's magic show ends in a disaster that not only ravages the school, but leaves a student dead. And both boys swear they could have seen Skeleton in the audience moments before...

And then things get weird.

                Del apparently knows more magic than he's letting on, and not just card and coin tricks. He invites Tom to Shadowland, a place in New England where his uncle Cole lives. Cole Collins was at one point a famous magician, but is now an eccentric recluse. Shadowland itself seems to be some kind of odd psychic focus, as when the boys arrive at the compound, the look and events mirror those that happened to them on the first day of their Freshman year. And as the summer continues, Tom realizes more and more that things are not as they seem. And while that seems like a stock phrase, this is a book about an illusionist teaching actual magic, so things get complicated and hallucinatory fast. But magic is dangerous, and learning it doubly so. And while Tom tells himself he's only there to protect Del, he may just be snared deeper himself, and the illusions and hallucinations are taking a darker turn...

                Okay, the first thing I love about this book is that Peter Straub once again kills it with the atmosphere. The book starts in a fading theater with Tom and the narrator (more on him in a moment) discussing exactly what it was that happened, and it's fairly easy to imagine the dusty old theater where Tom Flanagan practices his craft. Even when the story proper starts, the prologue gives it an odd sinister edge, an edge made further sinister by the way the school is set up. The academy, a dark Gothic building lit with candles because "the power went out", is another place dripping with atmosphere. Much of it oppressive even after the lights turn on. It feels like a place with a dark secret, even if that dark secret is that the teachers all exhibit latent sociopathic tendencies. Even Shadowland itself, the titular estate-cum-magic school where Del and Tom learn sorcery, isn't exactly painted in light, and the more comic and delightful moments tend to have a slightly sinister edge to them, like Herbie the mechanical acrobat and doll. It's a brightly-colored picture, like a children's illustration that's slowly being repainted as a darker image. Straub wants to subtly creep you out while presenting you with something that, let's be honest here, most kids with an interest in fantasy fiction would kill for. And it works. It does show some of the dark side of training all summer with a wizard who teaches object lessons through illusions.

                 Second, the way Straub plots the novel is superb. Through the use of framing devices and several flash-forwards to the characters after they've had the time to grow up, the reader is clued in that things will happen, and then Straub uses that to further up the dread. We're told fairly early on that something will happen at the magic show. We're told that Tom has a story because he's a magician playing dusty dives that barely see an audience. A lecture on fairy tales has an odd significance because the narrator knows it'll come into the story later. All of this is leading up to something, we know something must happen, not because Straub hides the central issue, as he did in Ghost Story and Koko, but because he reveals it. We know things are going to go south. We know things will crash and burn. But we don't know how. And that's what keeps the whole mess going. We can't tell how things will eventually end in dread, just that they will. He keeps us guessing, gives us plenty of scares, but we won't see it coming because we'll always be looking in the wrong place. 

                 And finally, Straub's emotional control rears its head again. There's a melancholy, dreamlike feel to Shadowland, a feeling that things are kind of disappearing, that things are bygone or lost. It's nostalgic in a way, but it helps with the atmosphere and plotting. There are a lot of bad feelings around the edges slowly working their way into Shadowland, and these feelings further drive the plot home. There's a section early in the story where a wizard in Tom's dreams tells him, "Can't go walking around without a chipped heart", and it's true. Straub manages to deal some wrenching emotions over the course of the story, and even in the early sections, there's a lot of heart tinged with more than a dash of sadness. But as it's a coming of age story, it's kind of what one would expect...at a certain point, we are not the same people we once were, and it's hard coming to terms with that. 

               Shadowland also has an important point in history. It draws its heritage from the more melancholic magical-realist fantasies of Ray Bradbury, the young wizard novels that were popular in young adult fiction for a time, and can trace among its descendants the stories of Neil Gaiman and many others. It well-deservedly won the WFA in 1982, and then like most WFA-winning books on this blog, it was forgotten later, while the books it inspired went on to much bigger things. If you can't tell 

                In the end, this is a book you should buy. This is a book that deserves to be read over and over again. This should be someone's favorite book. Read this book. Buy this book. Buy this book for other people. It's one worth reading, you won't regret the ride, and it's a beautiful, moving, sad tale that more people should know about. 

And don't forget, all the best old stories begin this way: "Long ago, when we all lived in the forest..."

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Spares by Michael Marshall Smith
One of Us by Michael Marshall Smith
Child of Fortune by Norman Spinrad


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