cover image Magic Terror: 7 Tales

Magic Terror: 7 Tales

Peter Straub. Random House (NY), $24.95 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-375-50393-1

The war-numbed soldier who asks, ""Just suppose...,that you were forced to confront extreme experience directly, without any mediation?"" speaks for all of the spiritually traumatized souls who navigate the harrowingly rendered hells of these seven tales of suspense and horror. Straub (Mr. X) effortlessly plumbs the hearts and minds of a range of well-developed characters--including a reflective assassin for hire, a five-year-old victim of domestic violence, an aging black jazz musician and a pompous Wall Street financial adviser--to locate epiphanic moments when their lives careened ""out of the ordinary"" and into the path of deforming private tragedy. In ""Ashputtle,"" an implied murderess blames her crimes on an emotionally deprived childhood in which she imagines herself a modern Cinderella victimized by her cruel stepsisters. ""Bunny Is Good Bread,"" an unnerving portrait of the psychopath as a young boy, follows young Fee Bandolier as he maladjusts to an unbearably gothic home situation in which his father has beaten his mother into a coma. ""Porkpie Hat"" is related as an alcoholic saxophonist's confession of a childhood brush with witchcraft, murder and miscegenation that continues to inform his blues-haunted music. In several of the tales--most notably ""The Haunted Village,"" which links to the novel Koko (1988) and stories from his previous collection, Houses Without Doors (1990)--Straub skillfully evokes the supernatural to suggest the dislocating effect of intense psychological upset. Mixing stark realism with black comedy, and reverberating with echoes of Conrad, Melville and the Brothers Grimm, these excursions to the dark side of life set a high standard for the literature of contemporary magic terror. (July)