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MR. X by Peter Straub

The author of GHOST STORY serves up Double Trouble in his Lovecraftian new novel.

By Denise Dumars     November 09, 1999

At the Horror Writer's Association Meeting in Hollywood this year, Peter Straub previewed his new novel, MR. X, for his fellow horror writers. He chose the single most graphic scene in the book to read to us--a scene of cold-blooded murder so shocking that it served to convince us all that Mr. X is a terrifying force of evil. And we were, of course, all immediately hooked.

This is not to say that the book is a slash-and-gash spectacular. In fact, if you want to trick your gore-hound friends into reading real literature, tell them about MR. X. Conversely, if you want to introduce the culture vultures in your retinue to our favorite genre, tell them about MR. X, too. What the novel truly represents is an example of Straub's supernatural fiction at its best.

The novel opens with an introduction to Ned Dunstan, the protagonist, who is on his way home due to a premonition of his mother's impending death. This kind of 'feeling' that Ned has about this situation is all too typical of the powers and abilities that his unusual family have inherited. While this is a family saga, it is also a supernatural tale, based--amazingly enough--within the framework of H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos.

But the reader does not need to understand the analogous--indeed, almost parabolic--resemblance of the novel's framework to the conceits of Lovecraft's tale 'The Dunwich Horror.' MR. X is, simply put, the most subtle and complex novel ever influenced by the works of Lovecraft. And for many of us, that's reason enough to read it.

For others who may not know or care about the Lovecraft mythos, MR. X is a complicated story of one man's journey toward an understanding of his background and himself. Ned Dunstan will come to learn some very shocking things about his background--some of which are not revealed until the relationships between Ned and his father and brother are as resolved as they're going to get near the end of the novel. So just when the reader thinks the climax is over and the denouement is about to begin, Straub delivers another shocker.

Ned comes home to the fictional town of Edgerton. Before his mother dies she tells him who his father was. What is not immediately known is that there is another secret: Ned has a brother who is not entirely human.

Just who or what the Dunstans are and how their strange powers evolved (a Dunstan woman once reduced a man who tried to rape her into a puddle of bile) is never fully explained in the book. Maybe to do so would be to explain too much, and thus destroy some of the esoteric charm of the book. But just how the Dunstans can 'eat time' or perform any of their other supernatural feats is not known to our protagonist--or to his father, who is Mr. X.

However positive Ned Dunstan and his arty, flighty but charming mother, Star Dunstan, are, there are other Dunstans to watch out for. Ned's shadow-brother, Robert, is incapable of living a 'normal' human existence. For a time he wants to intrude upon Ned's life and even 'share' Ned's girlfriend, for he and Ned look exactly alike--except for the fact that Robert has no fingerprints nor does he have lines on his palms. More than one Dunstan woman uses her abilities to shoplift whatever she pleases.

But the real threat in the book, of course, is Mr. X. Sometimes known as Edward Rinehart, Mr. X doesn't know that he is in fact a Dunstan. This, of course, makes Ned's heritage very interesting. Mr. X knows that somewhere out there he has a son, and he is determined to kill him. Mr. X has used his powers in hideous ways from the very beginning, and how he came to be a homicidal maniac is revealed as yet another example of a Dunstan misusing his powers.

Mr. X's father, who let his son think that his adoptive parents were his own, decided to drive his son crazy--just for the fun of it. He led Mr. X to a copy of 'The Dunwich Horror' and saw to it that from an early age his son believed his godlike powers came from those described in Lovecraft's stories.

Our hero Ned, on the other hand, is very uncomfortable utilizing his powers. He has always felt the shadow of a double--when he was a baby, he would spin around and look behind himself--but does not fully understand who Robert is until he learns of a curious case in Edgerton of a nurse snatching and selling babies. One of them was his brother Robert. Once he learns of Robert's existence, he learns more about his powers and how to use them. He also meets and falls in love with a woman married to a shady businessman. In this subplot the reader is drawn into the politics and social structure of the town of Edgerton. Straub has a great sense of place, and his fictional town is impressively rendered. The subtleties of social class in the novel are explored, and the interweaving of the Dunstan family with others in Edgerton is rich in characterization.

This is a very complex novel that reveals its secrets slowly and carefully. Ned learns amazing and sometimes very disturbing things about his family, their past, and their powers. That he prevails in the end is a tribute to his strength and complexity as a character. Even at its most outré, MR. X never strays too far from revealing genuine human nature and the way that real people react in extraordinary circumstances. It's another fine Straub novel, and as it is so complicated both in characterization and in plot structure it cannot be reduced to a simple plot summary. But read MR. X and see for yourself.

Here's just one spoiler for the Lovecraft fans: if you know the differences in appearance between Wilbur Whately and his brother in 'The Dunwich Horror,' you know something about the plot of Mr. X. Just don't go callin' Edward Rinehart's name at the top of Sentinel Hill, you hear?

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