Books: I found terror and awe in Straub’s Shadowland

How one book has influenced my thoughts on writing

Straub's Shadowland
When I was nine, I stole my older sister’s copy of Salem’s Lot and that was it. I was hooked on horror. Ask me who my favorite author is, and I’ll say Stephen King with no hesitation. But my favorite book was written by King’s coauthor for The Talisman, Peter Straub.

Books are like music in some sense. When people say, “I love that song,” they not only love the song the first time they hear it, but for many, many times after. Whether it’s a killer beat or a mesmerizing tale, anticipation becomes a major part of the enjoyment.

I wanted a gruesome, squirm-inducing ride.

Reading Straub’s Shadowland is like that for me.

I know many of its passages like the lyrics of a favorite song. Yet as a teenager, I bought this book for the same reason people hop on roller coasters —  I wanted a gruesome, squirm-inducing ride. Take the description of hero Tom Flanagan’s crucifixion—how the stake driven into his hand holds a bone just a bit too far from where it wants to go—ewww!

After those cheap thrills, later readings of Shadowland brought forth an awareness of magic phrases. In the beginning, Tom’s Latin teacher screams at the timid freshman class: “This is not an easy school. Not!” I can’t tell you how many times this scene and those words came to mind as I struggled through graduate school.

His nickname fits his sallow, cadaverous body

As with so many stories involving schools, this one has a bully. Straub makes upperclassman Skeleton Ridpath completely detestable in appearance, deed, and thought. His nickname fits his sallow, cadaverous body, he lashes another student’s back with a whip, and his choice of room décor—pictures of speared babies—documents his downward spiral into madness. Skeleton is fearsome, but he’s only a puppet for the real villain: the uncle of Tom’s new best friend, Del.

Del, an aspiring magician, quickly ropes Tom into his hobby.

The boys plan a magic show to amaze their classmates. Instead, their freshman year ends in tragedy when a fire breaks out during the show, killing a student. Shaken, they travel from Arizona to Vermont to spend the summer at Shadowland, home of Del’s uncle: world-renowned magician and current alcoholic, Coleman Collins.

Collins poses as the boys’ mentor into the upper realms of magic, but in truth, he wants to destroy them out of jealousy. This master magician has many tools at his disposal, including the manipulation of time and space. He makes hours vanish in a second and transports Tom back months to revisit scenes from his disastrous school year.

even a simple flashback needs to be executed with care

Straub himself is a magician with time. As a writer, I find even a simple flashback needs to be executed with care. How Straub plays with time across an entire novel is stunning. He weaves together the retelling of iconic fairy tales, flashbacks of Collins’s stint as a WWII medic, and scenes from the future. Somehow it all works. It’s brilliant.

Then again, this is from the perspective of a writer who’s read the book many times. As mentioned earlier, anticipation is nine-tenths the enjoyment. These days, I can savor each section to its fullest, knowing how each piece fits into the novel. The first time through, I was probably scratching my head.

Birds haunt this book

Another aspect of Straub’s writing that kills me is the imagery. Birds haunt this book—owls, sparrows, and vultures to name a few. Even the motto of the boy’s school is Alis volat propriis: He flies by his own wings. I love how the birds become symbolic of the characters and tie into the storyline.

Consider the sparrow: a small, cheerful and helpful bird.

In one of Collin’s fairy tales, a flock of sparrows makes a bad bargain with a wizard: they lose their wings to save a kingdom. In the final showdown, Collins transforms Del into a sparrow, and then hides himself in a sea of impostors  Tom, the new king of magicians, must find the real Collins. To save Tom, Del flies by his own wings and lands on the real Collins. As a consequence, Del is frozen into a glass bird. He loses his wings.

How the fairy tale foreshadows the ending is sublime—what symmetry! I wonder what came first for Straub: the fairy tale or the ending? I’d love to pull off something similar in my novel.

Writing has changed the way I read.

In my youth, gory scenes, serial killers, monsters, and madness were enough to keep me flipping pages. But these days, it takes more. All of the writer’s tricks and manipulations must work together to create an emotional experience. For Shadowland, it’s an experience of terror mixed with awe.

When Tom is ‘welcomed’ into the world of magic, he has the following interview with a master magician:

“Have you worlds within you?”

“I have worlds within me.”

“Do you want dominion?”

“I want dominion.”

And I did, you see — I wanted to tap that strength within me and to make the duller world know it.

Tammy NarayanTammy Narayan has selflessly volunteered to serve as a contest judge for this site. She’s a gifted writer and relentless editor. In between life and family, Tammy is working on final revisions for her second novel.

questionThis passage captures my feelings about writing. How about you? Do you want dominion? What worlds are within you?


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  1. Jim Bessey says:

    I love ths, Tammy!

    Isn’t t amazng how one or two early reads stck wth us for the rest of our lves? Interestng, too, how dffcult t s for any later book to dslodge that early favorte later on. For nstance, I stll fnd myself comparng every post-Apocalyptc novel to Kng’s “The Stand” and decdng every one falls short.

    “…terror and awe” ndeed!

    • Tamara Narayan says:

      So true. I thnk there’s a lot of authors out there who have been nfluenced by ths ‘Master of the Macabre’. When I read The Hunger Games, I thought, ‘Wow, ths author must be a Stephen Kng fan too’ because the frst and thrd feature some mutant wolves and allgators eerly smlar to some creatures n The Talsman.

  2. A very mpressve post, Tammy. Although I cannot connect wth you on the gory / sc-f / dark magc books, I can understand and relate to that frst love for words and books, and how our earlest nclnatons wth stores that touch us can fuel us for years. When I was lttle … about four / fve years old, I wrote a letter to my dad who was posted n Russa for a year or two when he was n the Navy. All that the letter contaned were 3 words wrtten n a repettve manner, the way I learned t. CAT CAT CAT CAT CAT, BAT BAT BAT BAT BAT, MAT MAT MAT MAT MAT….. (lol… I loved lookng at that one later), and my dad brought ths letter back wth hm, hghly amused. Later as a kd, I remember fallng n love wth the book ‘Hed’ by Johanna Spyr and ths took me on a quest to understand how books are wrtten for the mnd of a chld.

    • Tamara Narayan says:

      For some reason I never read Hed, but I can remember readng The Secret Garden, Lttle House on the Prare, and A Crcket n Tmes Square many, many tmes before gettng sucked nto the fascnatng world of horror.
      That’s so cool your dad kept that letter.

  3. H Tammy,

    I got nto Steven Kng when I borrowed ‘Frestarter’ from my aunt. I was 10 or 11 and I sat there and devoured the thng, I’d never been grpped lke that before!

    I really enjoyed readng about ‘Shadowland’ and apprecated your focus on Straub’s skll and technque. Your descrpton of the way he weaves brd metaphors through the story, and hs skllful manpulaton of tme really ntrgues me and makes me want to read the book.

    I haven’t read horror for years now, at some pont I mgrated to the world of poetry but I thnk both forms do a great job of dvng nto the deep and sometmes dark places of the psyche and fnd somethng nsprng (or at least bloody nterestng!) there. Thanks for the great post!

    • Tamara Narayan says:

      Thanks for your comment. I rarely read horror myself. I’ve moved over to authors lke Barbara Kngsolver and Alce Hoffman. But I’ll never stop readng Stephen Kng (or Preston and Chld). It’s fun to go back to my faves and dscover ones that are well-wrtten lke Shadowlands. Another extremely well-wrtten book n the horror genre, beleve t or not, s The Exorst. The book s so much more than a lttle grl spttng up green soup. I hghly recommend t.

  4. I’m not one to be scared by Stephen Kng at all, but your artcle ntrgued me wth some nterestng ponts. It’s true, I do read a lttle dfferently now, than when I dd n my youth – not sure I can attrbute my dfferences to wrtng…always thought they were a sgn of gettng older and perhaps a lttle more pcky about what I read and why I read t. I’m ntrgued by the dea of brds beng symbolc of characters too…always one to look for multple meanngs n thngs, ths presents some fascnatng aspects to consder, not only when readng, but also when creatng my own works. It sounds lke ths s a truly awesome book, one I mght just read – f I can ever get past the scare factor :)

  5. Tamara Narayan says:

    If Stephen Kng doesn’t scare you, then Shadowlands won’t ether. It’s funny how much more I apprecate great wrtng and symbolsm now vs. when I was n hgh school or college. I could totally rock lterature term papers now. Back then, t was a struggle.

  6. hahaha… the thngs we know now and wsh we knew then. Except, back then we ddn’t want to know what we know now. The rony of t all. :)

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