Peter Straub’s newest novel has it all: shifting perspectives, nested flashbacks, a story that spans four decades, and an attractive, charming cast. This last part is difficult to miss, as it’s mentioned repeatedly. A Dark Matter has its share of surreal horror and unsettling setpieces, but all those semi-generic people tend to blur into a bland crowd of victims whose plights are too indistinct to inspire lasting interest. Which may be the point. Straub is working toward a thematic examination of the nature of evil, and how its presence doesn’t so much contradict goodness as define it. This isn’t exactly revelatory material, though, and Matter’s biggest failing is that it spends 400 pages investigating a single event without ever making that event matter.
Back in 1966, mystic, guru, and probable con man Spencer Mallon decided he wanted to see past the veil between the living world and whatever lay beyond. Using his charisma, he gathered a group of high-school and college students for an evening that would change all their lives. Forty years later, novelist Lee Harwell decides to find out what really happened. His wife was one of Spencer’s followers, but she won’t tell him. So Lee starts tracking down the participants to get their side of the story. This hunt takes up the majority of the novel, and while it lasts, it’s easy to get caught up in the mystery. The pace is consistent, and Straub throws in enough asides and odd character moments to give the sense that something of importance is going on, even if it isn’t exactly clear what that is.
Eventually, though, the search has to come to an end, and once it stops moving, the center falls apart. Straub has an irritating habit of trying to create likeable characters through insistence, over-explaining their delightfulness without letting them breathe. Matter has a loose, patchwork feel, but to the book’s credit, the repeated descriptions of a single night only become tedious in the final pages. But even with its eerie visions and moments of existential clarity, there really isn’t enough here to make up for all the effort it takes to put the pieces together. Some scenes come close to grabbing the imagination, but they’re over quickly. On the whole, this is more a curious experiment than a successful narrative. It’s bold, inventive, and hollow all the way through.