In The Night Room by Peter Straub. Supernatural novel, 2004
Straub is known as a writer of ghostly books–in fact the work often considered his signature masterwork is entitled Ghost Story. This one also deals with spirits of the dead, while incorporating Straub’s take on the trope of the author’s fictional creations come to life (a subject memorably handled by his immensely successful sometime collaborator, Stephen King). The result is a compelling, genuinely unnerving work that has much of value to say about the creative process–as well as the search for justice, redemption and the various ways people survive horrific personal adversities.
The main character is Tim Underhill, a successful author who still struggles to accept and understand the vicious madness that cost his nephew’s life.
His recent novel–representing his effort to come to terms with this loss–is inspired by earlier, real-life atrocities that also took place in the same, now-abandoned house in his Midwestern hometown. Only trouble is, part of his fictionalized take on the previous mass-murderer in question is inaccurate, accusing the killer of an unspeakable crime that even in his madness he did not commit. It seems even the spirits of twisted mass-murderers have feelings and this one is so outraged, so determined to set the record straight and force Tim to recant that the very barriers separating the afterlife from our universe, and the worlds of imagination and reality are breached.
The ghost’s rage brings fictional characters from Tim’s book to life–most prominently the wounded heroine (who needs Tim’s help escaping other, vicious individuals from the novel). Tim finds himself emotionally drawn to his creation and even falling in love with her, though the sloppy way he wrote her has left her with multiple offbeat quirks.
In turn, other mysterious spirits from beyond contact Tim (via email–how else would ghosts do so in this day and age?). Some of these seek his help in correcting unresolved Earthly concerns; one other (a playfully sarcastic guy who lived long ago and who delights in employing his own version of modern computer/text lingo) has been handed the task of helping Tim understand and overcome the weird nightmare he’s blundered into. There’s also a very surly guardian angel type–who is even more reluctant, yet required to help out.
Other living mortals figure in, as well–including an estranged brother Tim must reconnect with and the damaged yet surviving daughter of our killer.
In lesser hands, all this could’ve easily become a truly unholy mess. But Straub is a sure-handed literary artist, fully capable of making absurd premises seem plausible. And the fact he takes an unflinching look at evil, as well as how one might get beyond–or at least cope with it–is impressive.
This one’s a very good novel, by one of the better authors of thrilling, suspenseful and ultimately rewarding supernatural fiction out there.