Despite the fact that Peter Straub is my second-favorite author, I always go into his books with a slight sense of trepidation and doubt. Straub is an excellent writer, no doubt about that; his books just require a certain frame of mind because... well, they aren't always as they seem. Straub is the king of hidden meaning and messages, and he enjoys confusing (errr.... "challenging" -- let's go with "challenging") his readers. I enjoy that about him -- his books always make me really think, which is nice. But the density of his work as a whole can get a bit tiring.
However, in the case of Shadowland, that backfires. Sort of.
Shadowland mostly focuses on Del and Tom, two teenage boys who become friends at a prestigious boarding school where things are wrong and going more wrong all the time. They bond over a love of performing magic tricks. Del is an aspiring magician and spends each summer with his uncle, a famous user of the dark side of magic. This summer Tom wants to go along with his friend to protect him -- he feels nothing matters more than that.
Before I go much further, I must point out what is perhaps the most important part of this novel: the narration. This story is told in first person past for the majority, and the narrator is an unnamed, unknown classmate of the two boys retailing the story of what happened at Shadowland nearly twenty years after the fact. We never know who the narrator is, but Straub leads the reader to believe this guy is pretty important.... but we're never let it on who it is. Adding to that, the narrator mentions on several occasions that what he's writing down could, in fact, be wrong. He's going by heresay alone -- he never personally experienced most of what goes on with Tom and Del. For all we know, Shadowland -- Del's uncle's place of smoke, mirrors, and horrors -- could, in fact, not even exist. Annoyed yet? If so, join the club. It's something that irritated me and genuinely fascinated me throughout my reading. If anything, Peter Straub is the master of unreliable narration and keeping his readers at arm's length away from the heart and minds of the characters. In this way, despite them only being on the page, they feel truly alive and fully colored because these folks are like living, breathing humans -- none of us really know everything about each other.... especially what motivates and drives us. Still, this can create a sense of disconnect when reading.
This novel deals a lot in magic and what is real vs. what is not real. Shadowland is a mansion in secluded New England filled with trap doors and secret passages and hidden rooms, all bent at Del's uncle's sadistic will to alter the boys' sense of time and place. Because, you see, this summer is not like previous summers in which Del has come alone -- Coleman Collins is looking for an apprentice, and he ain't no nice guy. Because of this, it's hard to know at times while reading the story what's really real and what's been planted in the boys' heads. It's sometimes hard to know what's an illusion or trickery. And.... if I'm being honest, that gets sort of exhausting. I found myself ready for the novel to be over when I was only a little over halfway through, and yet I remained intrigued up until the end. I loved and hated this book, often at the same time.
I realize I've done a rather shoddy job at summing this book up, and that's because it really can't be summed up. Aside from the boys' prep school catching on fire and some weird stuff with Bugs Bunny and Humphrey Bogart, nothing much happens. However, I didn't realize nothing was happening until I turned the last page and tried thinking back on what I'd just read. In a way, I suppose Straub pulled a magic trick on his reader.
I'm not sure how I feel about Shadowland. I feel like it's a great coming-of-age tale filled with memorable characters and scary situations, but it just doesn't entirely work for me. It's a complex book, and when one primes the pump, he or she will be rewarded... and yet, not rewarded at all. I don't remember the last time I felt so conflicted about a book. I loved it, but I struggled with it. At times I would have preferred to watch paint dry than read another page, and sometimes I couldn't put it down. It threw me into a massive reader's block -- one I still haven't really returned from. I'm going to give it 3 and a half stars and a weak recommendation. If you're curious about Peter Straub, start with Ghost Story. If you're familiar with his works and enjoy a smodge-podge of fantasy and horror that doesn't always work on a logical level.... well, you could do worse.