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. I love this, Tammy!

    Isn’t it amazing how one or two early reads stick with us for the rest of our lives? Interesting, too, how difficult it is for any later book to dislodge that early favorite later on. For instance, I still find myself comparing every post-Apocalyptic novel to King’s “The Stand” and deciding every one falls short.

    “…terror and awe” indeed!

    • Tamara Narayan says

      So true. I think there’s a lot of authors out there who have been influenced by this ‘Master of the Macabre’. When I read The Hunger Games, I thought, ‘Wow, this author must be a Stephen King fan too’ because the first and third feature some mutant wolves and alligators eerily similiar to some creatures in The Talisman.

  2. A very impressive post, Tammy. Although I cannot connect with you on the gory / sci-fi / dark magic books, I can understand and relate to that first love for words and books, and how our earliest inclinations with stories that touch us can fuel us for years. When I was little … about four / five years old, I wrote a letter to my dad who was posted in Russia for a year or two when he was in the Navy. All that the letter contained were 3 words written in a repetitive manner, the way I learned it. CAT CAT CAT CAT CAT, BAT BAT BAT BAT BAT, MAT MAT MAT MAT MAT….. (lol… I loved looking at that one later), and my dad brought this letter back with him, highly amused. Later as a kid, I remember falling in love with the book ‘Heidi’ by Johanna Spyri and this took me on a quest to understand how books are written for the mind of a child.

    • Tamara Narayan says

      For some reason I never read Heidi, but I can remember reading The Secret Garden, Little House on the Prairie, and A Cricket in Times Square many, many times before getting sucked into the fascinating world of horror.
      That’s so cool your dad kept that letter.

  3. Hi Tammy,

    I got into Steven King when I borrowed ‘Firestarter’ from my aunt. I was 10 or 11 and I sat there and devoured the thing, I’d never been gripped like that before!

    I really enjoyed reading about ‘Shadowland’ and appreciated your focus on Straub’s skill and technique. Your description of the way he weaves bird metaphors through the story, and his skillful manipulation of time really intrigues me and makes me want to read the book.

    I haven’t read horror for years now, at some point I migrated to the world of poetry but I think both forms do a great job of diving into the deep and sometimes dark places of the psyche and find something inspiring (or at least bloody interesting!) there. Thanks for the great post!

    • Tamara Narayan says

      Thanks for your comment. I rarely read horror myself. I’ve moved over to authors like Barbara Kingsolver and Alice Hoffman. But I’ll never stop reading Stephen King (or Preston and Child). It’s fun to go back to my faves and discover ones that are well-written like Shadowlands. Another extremely well-written book in the horror genre, believe it or not, is The Exorist. The book is so much more than a little girl spitting up green soup. I highly recommend it.

  4. I’m not one to be scared by Stephen King at all, but your article intrigued me with some interesting points. It’s true, I do read a little differently now, than when I did in my youth – not sure I can attribute my differences to writing…always thought they were a sign of getting older and perhaps a little more picky about what I read and why I read it. I’m intrigued by the idea of birds being symbolic of characters too…always one to look for multiple meanings in things, this presents some fascinating aspects to consider, not only when reading, but also when creating my own works. It sounds like this is a truly awesome book, one I might just read – if I can ever get past the scare factor 🙂

  5. Tamara Narayan says

    If Stephen King doesn’t scare you, then Shadowlands won’t either. It’s funny how much more I appreciate great writing and symbolism now vs. when I was in high school or college. I could totally rock literature term papers now. Back then, it was a struggle.

  6. hahaha… the things we know now and wish we knew then. Except, back then we didn’t want to know what we know now. The irony of it all. 🙂

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