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Magic Terror

Book review by Gary Wood

Peter Straub and Stephen King are good friends and even collaborated on one book -- The Talisman. King went through a phase of excessive gore (The Dark Half and Gerald's Game come immediately to mind) but seems to be past this phase in his more recent works. Unfortunately, Straub seems still to be in that phase.

The one book by Straub that keeps me coming back is his Ghost Story, published in 1979. That story of an evil deed coming back to haunt its perpetrators long after the fact is very well done (interestingly, the basic plot was recently re-used in the movie, What Lies Beneath). That book was made into an equally interesting (if not perfect) movie with a cast of heavy hitters including Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, and Patrica Neal. On the basis of that good experience, I continue to read Straub's works and, unfortunately, to be disappointed.

I guess that the best way I can describe my feelings about Straub's writing is with a metaphor - if his writing is a fire, it is more about smoke than the flame.

Having said all this, I will now proceed to his latest work, Magic Terror. This is a collection of seven short stories which have all been previously published (this, in itself does not speak well for the author or the book). Of the seven stories, I can recommend two.

"The Ghost Village" is a Viet Nam war tale which is haunting (pun intended). Straub can deal very effectively with the horrors of that war. He demonstrated this very well in his 1988 novel, Koko. That clash of such vastly different ideologies has produced a number of excellent novels and movies (Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter) and Straub handles this very well.

"Porkpie Hat" is a story about an elderly jazz musician and an episode which happened early in his life. The story is tight and well structured and definitely worth a read.

Of the remaining five, I will only say that they are truly disgusting. "Ashputtle" will give every parent nightmares and "Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff" is one of the most repulsive stories I have ever read.

So, two out of's amazing what you can get away with if you're an "established" author.