Shadowland by Peter Straub

The King of Cats


In the first chapter of Shadowland is the retelling of a scary little English folk tale (one that M.G. Lewis, author of the classic Gothic novel, The Monk, once terrified Percy Shelley with). It creeped me out too.

A traveler, in other words my friend, was journeying on foot to the house of a companion — not me — where he was going to spend the night.  He had been walking all day, and even though it was already late and night was coming on, he was tired enough to rest his feet when he came to a ruined abbey.  He sat down, took off his boots, leaned against an iron fence, and began to rub his feet.  An odd series of noises made him turn around and peer through the bars of the fence. Down below him, on the grassy floor of the old abbey, he saw a procession of cats.  They were formed into two long equal lines, and were marching forward very slowly.  Now, of course he had never seen anything like that before, and he bent forward to look more closely.  It was then that he saw that the cats at the head of the procession were carrying a little coffin on their backs, and were making for, were slowly approaching, a small open grave.  When my friend had seen the grave, he looked horrified back at the coffin borne by the lead cats, and noticed that on it sat a crown.  As he watched, the lead cats began to lower the coffin into the grave. After that he was so frightened that he could not stay in that place a moment longer, and he thrust his feet into his boots and rushed on to the house of his friend.  During dinner, he found that he could not keep from telling his friend what he had witnessed. He had scarcely finished when his friend’s cat, which had been dozing in front of the fire, leaped up and cried, ‘Then I am the King of the Cats!’ and disappeared in a flash up the chimney.  It happened, my friends — yes, it happened, my charming little birds.

Like the weird King of Cats story, Shadowland is creepy and disturbing, and quite a bit as nonsensical at times. Like a magician’s stagecraft presto-chango of rotating mirrored boxes and exploding flash paper, the novel itself is a series of illusions, relayed by a will-o’-the-wisp narrator, who’s getting a second, sometimes third hand account of the multi-layered story. This alone helps confirm the mystery that the story may not actually be true (meaning the truth inside the lie of fiction), but a sleight of hand trick played on the narrator, thus the reader. At the end, we are left with some doubts, and some confirmation, but nothing definitive, but perhaps that is the point (one of them anyway): magic is illusion.

The book is essentially divided into two parts: Carson School, which appears like a Harry Potter-esque English boys’ school plucked off the globe and dropped into Arizona where the protagonist Tom Flanigan and his best friend Del Nightingale experiment with magic (mostly card tricks, but also levitation) leading to a dramatic tragedy at the school, and Shadowland, a massive Vermont estate on a lake where they are to study and apprentice during their summer vacation under the tutelage of Del’s uncle, master magician Coleman Collins. But the old mage, a drunk who wears dapper suits, has many tricks up his sleeves, and ends up holding them hostage (along with a pretty waif named Rose) while doing terrible things to all three of them. A third, much smaller section of the novel bookends the story by bringing the narrator in the present time (he meets Tom Flanigan twenty years after the main event working as a magician in a sleazy L.A. club where Tom tells him the story), as well as a brief piece in the middle where he has an odd visit with some former classmates to find out their accounts of the bizarre happenings at the school, including an entire student body that seems to be possessed by a demonic force, and a satanic upper classman named Steve “Skeleton” Ridpath, a cadaverous bully plagued by magic and madness. Skeleton (my favorite character by far) appears throughout the story either as a real, tortured soul (his ending is an interesting one), or an apparition that represents the boys’ greatest fears.

The one main female character and love interest, Rose, is a specter, perhaps an invention of Collins who implies through one of his many anecdotes that she is a mermaid (she is in pain every time she takes a step, as if nails or pieces of glass are boring into her feet). The Mage says, she lies. She says, he lies. Whom do we trust? Her presence is seductive and illusory: she appears and disappears like a ghost, lies and betrays then begs for and is given forgiveness, is alternatively a virgin, whore, victim, and a goddess—the perfect fantasy woman! In Shadowland, and particularly in the Rose/Tom love story, one sees the influence of John Fowles’ The Magus which Straub confesses to in the foreword (this book made me want to read it again). Both novels describe or allude to secret worlds. In Shadowland this takes the literal form of trapdoors, tunnels, forbidden passages that open to other realms, but also fantasies, hallucinations, and dreams.

Like Ghost Story, the novel flies off in different directions like the many birds that comes swooping down from ceilings and treetops and even swim underwater. The owl especially is a powerful symbol throughout the story. In classical mythology the owl is associated with Athena, and represents wisdom and the recognition of deeper truth that is clothed in darkness and mystery. One theme throughout the book is recognition. The master magician recognizes his successor and initiates him in the same way he was initiated by his predecessor. Tom struggles against this initiation because it means betraying his friend and losing the girl he loves, selling his soul as it were. In certain part of the story the Devil appears to Tom, dressed as a preppy schoolmaster, and tries to keep him on the Mage’s path. Tom’s refusal leads to a horrifying climax that pushes the novel away from fantasy (I didn’t even touch on the appearance of the Brothers Grimm and the merry men of scary murderous trolls that haunt the forest) and into full shock horror.

Some of the most compelling writing in Shadowland comes from the small anecdotal tales passed down from one character to the next, and like all good stories, given much opportunity for embellishments. One that I found particularly haunting was Collins (Charles Nightingale at that time) telling of when he worked as a medic during the first world war, and learned of his power to heal with touch after observing a dying young medic (the purple guts spilling onto the road is horrifically memorable) and putting him out of his misery by shooting him and temporarily stealing his identity–not through his wallet, but by eating his soul and transforming into a terrifying demon/machine/being called The Collector. Another favorite is the cross-country train ride through a dream world where one car is transported back in time and then derails and crashes in a horror of human carnage…or does it? Shadowland may very well be dreamland, and I believe trying to make logical sense of the novel is a mistake. If the reader gets on the dream train and goes along for the weird ride, I think he or she will find it a satisfying trip.

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