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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

Mister X

Reviewed: January 23, 2006
By: Peter Straub
Publisher: Ballantine Books
511 pages, $13.99

Writing more stories about a famous character is one way to pay homage to another writer. A second method is use that writer’s material, in a respectful way, to tell your own stories. Peter Straub has done that here in Mister X, in what is clearly a nod in the direction of that seminal horror story writer, H.P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft worked almost exclusively in the short story form. Indeed, his wordy, Poe-influenced style becomes almost unwieldy beyond a certain length, and those who use his ideas often render them in less torturous prose. Recent homages have included the movie Hellboy, based on the comic book creation of Mike Mignola. Both of Joss Whedon’s television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, borrowed freely from Lovecraft’s work.

Mister X is the story of Ned Dunstan, his phantom twin, his insane father, and the strange fate that brings them all together.

Ned has tried to live a normal life in spite of his annual affliction and the strange lassitude that keeps him from real success in his life, but the impending death of his mother, Star, brings him back to Edgerton, Illinois, there to spend time with his truly strange relatives and become involved in a series of strange deaths. Ned finds love, danger and answers to many of the questions that have always troubled him in this eerie little Mississippi River city.

Meanwhile, alternate chapters in an entirely different first person voice give us the blighted life history of a megalomaniac who has taken the works of H.P. Lovecraft for a secret gospel and is trying to serve the nameless gods those stories evoke. He is Ned’s father and the father of Robert, Ned’s phantom twin.

They are the product of an inadvertent series of cross-breedings between two ancient families whose members seem to possess a bewildering variety of psychic abilities. Whether they are sports of nature or actual remnants of the ancient gods in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos is left up in the air.

Mister X plays out like a thoroughly modern thriller, of the type that Straub moved to writing after his initial run of horror novels, but it uses that form to tell a fantasy story. For the most part, Straub manages to evoke all the weirdness of Lovecraft without usually sounding like him, and keeps us guessing as to what it all means right up to the very last line of the book, which, I will hint, may put you in mind of that excellent Denzel Washington movie, Fallen.

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