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A Special Place - The Heart of A Dark Matter
Peter Straub
Pegasus paperback $12.95

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Peter Straub's A Special Place (2010) is the quintessential work of literary horror. Anchored firmly in the kids-come-together-as-adults-to-confront-traumatic-past-event subgenre pioneered by Stephen King's It (1986), and Straub's own Ghost Story (1979), A Special Place uses a series of heavily stylised vignettes to explore how a group of people can experience the same event in a number of radically different ways. While, at close to 400 pages in length, A Special Place is by no means a short novel, it is considerably shorter than the earlier shaggier draft of the story that has been released under the title of The Skylark (2010).

In the process of pruning that saw Straub's initial draft become The Skylark and The Skylark transform into A Special Place, a number of details and events were lost. One of the areas where this loss is most acutely felt is in the character of Keith Hayward. While most of A Special Place's characters are clearly damaged or fallen, Hayward is the only one that is beyond redemption. He is a killer and a sadist, a manipulator and a lightning rod for all kinds of trouble. His role in the novel is minor and very much secondary but the mephitic haze surrounding his presence in the story ensures that Hayward remains seared into one's memory. One particular scene seems to capture the essential wrongness of Hayward as a character:

"The worst of the worst was an actual moment of mentoring, of advice given and received, involving a great ball of keys that Tillman drew from his pocket and offered to his nephew as, the detective thought, some kind of solution. A key opened an enclosure, and within a large ball of keys could be hidden those that opened the most secret and hidden of enclosures - like flags that said Here! Here!, the bits of coloured string, bright as flames in the lenses of Cooper's binoculars. Tillman Hayward was telling his nephew of what could be called a private room." [page 166]

A Special Place is a novella that seeks to expand upon the densely compressed hideousness of this passage. It is a portrait of a killer nurtured not by alienation, abuse or mental instability but by filial love, compassion and intimacy. It is a portrait of what can happen when a love truly dares not speak its name.

"'Oh, you're something' said Uncle Till. 'Yes, you are.'
Keith's face blazed with pleasure; satisfaction glowed in his stomach with the warmth of a good meal."
[page 6]

The novella's story begins in 1958, with Tillman Hayward taking his young nephew under his wing. Keith has been discovered torturing and mutilating animals and his parents have asked Uncle Till to have a word with the young man. However, rather than disciplining him or trying to talk him out of these violent impulses, Till encourages his nephew. He teaches him the tools of his trade. He teaches him the value of a special place where private activities can be undertaken, far from prying eyes, and far from disapproving consciences. Keith's reaction is as instantaneous as it is visceral; he enjoyed his uncle's praise. In fact, he enjoyed it so much that he comes to crave the older man's attention. Straub never lets us know precisely why it is that Keith tortured and mutilated those animals but one suspects a seed of truth is contained in the hastily cooked up 'excuse' fashioned by his uncle:

"'Scientific impulse, pure and simple,' said Uncle Till. 'I explained that Keith really has to wait for high school biology before he starts to dissect things. Including any dead animals he might come across in that old vacant lot." [page 10]

Straub's coyness when it comes to Keith's inner world is one of the key innovations of the novella. Indeed, since its inception in works such as Robert Bloch's Psycho (1959), the contemporary serial killer novel has been an exquisitely psychological creation. If the history of the literary novel charts the rise of the phenomenological self as the basic unit of literary currency, then the serial killer novel is its omega point.

Serial killer novels take the psychological realism of works such as Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857), and Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740), and distort their portraits of human nature into vast and grotesque cathedrals to human perversity. The works of Thomas Harris, such as Red Dragon (1981), and The Silence Of The Lambs (1988), remain benchmarks in this genre because of their creation not of characters or plots but of world-views that make grotesque murders not only morally acceptable but deontologically necessary. What is extraordinary about A Special Place is that, despite being a budding serial killer, Keith Hayward has no real opinions about anything. He does not hate cats; he does not hate women or men. He kills out of love.

The first foundation stone for this love is laid early on in the book. After Tillman takes Keith aside and suggests he find an old shed or basement in which to carry out his 'dissections', Keith reflects upon the image of his uncle that his filtered down to him via his parents. Tillman is a loner. He travels a lot, he beds a lot of women, and he stays out late drinking. He shifts from town to town and he is always one step ahead of his creditors and angry husbands.

Keith's absent father hero-worships his brother. He wishes that he were more like him. That he could just turn his back on the old nine-to-five and kick up his heels at the local nightclubs. Keith's father is simply not present in the boy's life (this is why we only ever hear about his views and actions indirectly, through the intermediary of other characters), but Tillman is. Tillman is present in Keith's house and his parents' thoughts even when he is not there. Tillman can do no wrong.

In a brilliant series of monologues, Straub subtly undermines this vision of the glamorous younger brother. Tillman is a charming rogue but, like all psychopaths, his charm is utterly shallow. Tillman has nothing much to say for himself in conversation other than to talk about his favourite TV shows and films, but his opinions on works such as Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) reveal that he is - a). not particularly intelligent, and b). not particularly skilled at understanding other humans. Till feels no empathy. He understands enough about other humans to bullshit his way through life, but he cannot love and he cannot forge lasting bonds. But despite this, Keith (and Keith's whole family) adores him.

The second foundation stone for Keith's love is laid once the boy reaches high school. Ugly and isolated but possessing of great reserves of inner strength, Keith steps in when he sees a couple of local bullies picking on a kid with foreign parents. Having intimidated and shamed the bullies into leaving Miller alone, Keith's reaction is physical. Just as physical as when Uncle Till praised him as a younger boy:

"His arousal came not from the usual sources but from the now comprehensible, though still mushy, words uttered by the freshman boy whose backward-pointing feet and lowered butt he could see by turning his head and looking sideways. The kid was bent over like a Muslim on a prayer rug. In a voice ragged and soft with exhaustion, he was saying 'Oh thank you, oh thank you, oh thank you... I hate it when they piss on me... thank you, oh thank you, oh thank you.' To that he added what sounded like the word 'Sir'." [pages 42-3]

Aside from lacking the megalomaniacal and self-mythologizing belief-system of your run-of-the-mill serial killer, Keith Hayward is also unusual insofar as he is not really a loner. Indeed, while he follows his uncle's advice and sets up a special place in which to kill local animals, Keith also uses his special place as a venue for sex with Miller. But of course, Keith can't bring himself to admit that his relationship with Miller has meaning:

"'It's supposed to be sex for me, Miller, not for you. I don't want to have sex with you, because I'm not a pansy.'" [page 58]

The revelation that Keith may well be gay begs the question as to the novella's title. Does the 'Special Place' refer to the place where Keith kills local pets or is it the place inside himself where his true feelings are kept? Keith is no psychopath. He has real human feelings, it is just that these feelings cannot be voiced. Simply stated, Keith is in love with Uncle Till:

"The man always wore his hat, even in bed. Keith thought that was amazingly cool." [page 15]

"The long muscles under his skin, the angles of his face, the beauty of the hat brim, the poise of his hands, and the curl of smoke rising from the cigarette tilted between his fingers: all of this, and more, he wanted to memorise." [page 17]

It is telling that Straub affixes the word 'beauty' not to Tillman's poise or face but the brim of his hat. Even when lost in the privacy of his own mental world, Keith cannot admit to himself that he loves his uncle. He cannot admit this to himself because it is incest. He cannot admit this to himself because it is queer. He cannot admit this to himself because Tillman is not in the least bit equipped to cope with another person's love. Tillman is a killer; he uses the love of others to his advantage. For Keith to admit his love for Tillman would be to mark himself out as one of the normal people; the people undeserving of Tillman's attentions; the people who never get intimate access to Tillman's thoughts and feelings; the people who talk about baseball.

As Keith comes of age, he decides to pay homage to his uncle by giving him a gift. He gives him that which he prizes most: Miller. For years now, Miller has been Keith's sexual surrogate, standing in for Tillman as a focus for Keith's hungers and desires. Now he must serve as Tillman's surrogate for Keith. Keith could never ask his uncle to have sex with him and so he offers up Miller as a stand-in. Having been sent down to a local diner for a slice of pie, Keith burns with envy and heartache. Not only can he not have Tillman to himself, he can no longer have Miller. He gave away that which was most dear to him to the person he truly loves and all he has to show for it is a shiny new knife and a slice of pie:

"Though is pie was juicy, it tasted like dust. He could barely force himself to swallow the pulp in his mouth. When he tried to wash the cud down with Coca-Cola, the liquid in his glass felt oily and dead. It had no taste at all. The seconds had barely begun to tick. Somewhere a boy screamed and a man smiled. Inside his head, the screaming sank and flared like a candle flame on a terrace at night." [page 107]

Of course, the pie is cherry. When Keith returns to his special place, his uncle pops his cherry. Not sexually, but morally, by goading Keith into taking his first human life. Straub's description of the murder is disturbingly physical and disgustingly intimate:

"'I'll tell you everything you need to know, son,' came his uncle's soft caressing voice. 'You'll do all the right things in all the right ways.' A cold, cold hand patted his shoulder. 'Reach around under your coat and fetch out that good-looking knife.'" [pages 119-20]

What makes A Special Place such a disturbing work of fiction is the absolute normality of its central character. Keith is not a monster; he is simply born into a time and a place where he cannot admit to himself or to others the true nature of his desires. Utterly captivated by his psychopathic uncle, Keith craves the older man's attention. He will do anything to receive a pat on the head or a whispered intimacy. But the only way for Keith to keep his uncle's interest is by turning himself into a monster.

Keith Hayward is a monster not because he is psychologically alien to us but because he is sympathetic. The tragedy of Hayward's existence is that he is finds himself forced to do the worst of things for the best of reasons. His motivations are not the Gothic cathedrals of madmen but the feelings that bind human society to one another: love, devotion, affection, desire for intimacy, kinship, friendship. Keith is a healthy teenaged boy with no outlets for his desires. He is a monster created by an ill society. Keith Hayward is the child of intolerance and lack of empathy. Keith Hayward is one of us.

A Special Place by Peter Straub



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