Tattered Tomes: If You Could See Me Now by Peter Straub

Evil is what we call the force we can discover when we send our minds as far as they can go: when the mind crumbles before something bigger, harder than itself, unknowable and hostile. –If You Could See Me Now, page 285.

If You Could See Me Now original paperback coverInfatuated with his cousin Alison Greening, Miles Teagarden jumps at the chance to go skinny dipping with the alluring young beauty. The quarry is dark and Miles is convinced someone is watching them, hidden by the trees. The water thrashes about with nervous energy and Miles looses consciousness. Alison dies, and though not officially blamed for her death, Miles is unofficially the man who got away with it according to the locals. Miles and Alison had just made a promise to one another before she died: meet up again at Arden, Wisconsin, in twenty years. The years pass and now Miles is alone, working on a book about DH Lawrence, and he remembers the promise. Alison is twenty years dead and yet he wonders if she’ll still keep her end of the deal. Miles goes back to where they made their promise and confronts his past head on. One thing about the past: it is never, ever what you remember it to be. Sometimes the past is dangerous, and best left in its place.

If you are a fan of horror fiction and you don’t know who Peter Straub is you’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Many writers, myself included, cite him as a major, if not the major influence, of their own fiction endeavors. I have to admit that no one ever recommended any Peter Straub books to me. Truthfully, it was the wonderful paperback covers of his books that initially caught my eye. The titles rising across the front like smoke, or a shadow, or a twisted and evil tree. Some of the covers of Julia, If You Could See Me Now, Ghost Story, Shadowland, and Floating Dragon all share a similar tone, what I like to call the early Peter Straub brand. You could see those Straub covers a mile away. My library kept the paperbacks in revolving books racks like you see now at your local Dollar General store. Spin them round and round and watch the greatest horror novels and collections blur before your eyes. I spent many an hour hovering around the rack dedicated to horror fiction, scanning the cover art, reading the blurbs on the back of the books, and those early Peter Straub novels always caught my eye. Especially the paperback cover for If You Could See Me Now, which at the time, did not follow the format of the other Straub covers.

Sorry folks, but sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.

Once you read the wonderful words inside Peter Straub’s books, the covers don’t matter anymore. Mr. Straub simply takes you by the hand and guides you into his world. And you follow him through the narrative, kind of like following someone down a path in the woods at dusk, and you fall in love with the characters, and then you fall in love with the story, and you’re wondering where it’s all headed, and then BAM, he throws in a quick jab to the throat and. You. Are. Hooked.

Since I was judging books by the cover back then, I read Peter Straub’s Ghost Story first, then Shadowland, finally looping back to If You Could See Me Now, saving it for last because the cover was so different than the other two. There had to be something else that was different about the book. I was just a teenaged horror junkie looking for another book to bring on the nightmares, so I rarely paid attention to copyright dates and things like that. I just wanted the story, and it had better be good. I wanted blood and gore and a little sex and twists and turns and a main character with some backbone…all the stuff that makes a damn good story. That was all that mattered. Funny thing is those books didn’t feature any of those things I thought I was craving. Sure there’s some horrific moments in those pages, but Straub’s work is a little more cerebral than most writers. There’s a quality to his words you will not find with any other writer, and that really appealed to me, though I didn’t realize how much until much later on in my life.

I read those three books almost back to back in that order and by the time I read If You Could See Me Now it kind of pissed me off. See, I was naïve and quickly assumed that if you wrote good books then all of your books would be good, and that each book would be better than the last. In this case, I mean scarier. The other two books of his I’d read blew me away, and scared the hell out of me, so I had high hopes for If You Could See Me Now. Not that it was bad. Quite the contrary; it is an excellent novel, one of Straub’s best in my opinion, I was just too young and inexperienced to see it first hand. Sadly, I didn’t realize that particular novel was written before Ghost Story and Shadowland. Had I known that little tidbit of information, and especially if I had read If You Could See Me Now before those others, I would have witnessed the growth of a writer. Instead, I went looking for a horrifying ghost story and instead found a tale I really didn’t understand at the time.

The fault of my disappointment was mine and mine alone.

If there’s one thing that can be said about Straub’s work, it’s that the present is where the mysteries of the past are revealed, and through those connections, his characters grow, often at great peril, both physically and spiritually. Working through the secrets of the past, exploring how it tarnishes and warps memories, confronting the demons that wreck our souls to obsession, these are the roads Peter Straub chooses to navigate in his stories, and they are perhaps best exemplified in If You Could See Me Now better than any of his works since. I’ve read all of his books except A Dark Matter – I know, I know, shame on me…I’ll get to it, I promise – and these motifs are central to understanding and enjoying Straub’s stories. His characters are often loners, damaged and obsessed with their memories. They are pariahs, shunned by their communities, even their own friends and families. If you’ve ever been the black sheep of your family, the stories of Peter Straub were written with you in mind.

There tends to be a sort of collective past recollection in Straub’s stories. Concerning the death of Alison Greening and what really happened that night at the quarry, this collective past recollection is reinforced when Miles returns home in the midst of the whole town reeling from the strange murders of a couple of local girls. Miles has always been considered a little strange, and folks think he’s too big for his own britches now because he’s got a fancy college education and living in New York, which might as well be on another planet when compared to the puritan town of Arden and the surrounding communities. Miles discovers that the past, even if it’s the wrong past, is hard to shake. People remember the wrong things, and their mistrust heightens their fear. The cards are stacked against him the second he sets foot back home, and as his obsession cranks up and rears its ugly head, every action and reaction only sets those hooks in deeper and deeper. Miles goes from untrustworthy curiosity to possible serial killer monster in a matter of days, and there’s not much he can do to keep his head above it all. He is convinced Alison is going to keep her end of the bargain from beyond the grave, and he’s not exactly certain if that’s such a good thing or not.

The panic was at being lost, but the fear which rushed in after it was simply of the woods themselves, of giant alien nature. I mean that the trees seemed inhabited by threatening life. Malevolence surrounded me. Not just nature’s famous Darwinian indifference, but active actual hostility. It was the most primitive apprehension of evil I had ever known. I was a fragile human life on the verge of being crushed by immense forces, by forces of huge and impersonal evil. Alison was a part of this; she had drawn me in. I knew that if I did not move, I would be snatched by awful twigged hands, I would be shredded against stones and branches, my mouth and eyes filled with moss. I would die as the two girls had died. Lichen would pack my mouth. How foolish we had been to assume that mere human beings had killed the girls! If You Could See Me Now—pages 147-148.

When Alison does return, it is in a culmination of all of the forces that have been working against Miles, focused into a fine laser point that reveals that even those he trusts, even his own family, have deep, dark secrets. Once the cards are out on the table, Straub presents us with an ambiguous conclusion that could fall on either side of the supernatural. Thirty years ago, the ending grated my nerves, quite possibly because I had never read a book with such an ending before, but probably more so because I was just a young kid that just couldn’t relate to Miles Teagarden. Rereading it now, for me, the conclusion can only have been on one side of the supernatural, and I realize that which side wholly depends on the reader.

Many reviews I’ve read concerning If You Could See Me Now suggest that it may very well be Straub’s weakest work. I know I felt that way reading it right on the heels of finishing Ghost Story and Shadowland. Rereading it now, thirty years later, and I can finally see any weakness of the story was due to my own inexperience with life. Alienation, rejection, isolation; the brutal realities of youth, so prevalent yet often assigned less meatier labels such as angst, attitude, and indifference. Sometimes, one must move past those realities to be able to take them into inventory.

Recently rereleased in a new trade paperback edition, this early work by one the true master of horror needs to make it into your hands as soon as possible. The truth of the matter is If You Could See Me Now is one of Peter Straub’s strongest works, and a very important work for both the reader and the author. As a reader, we witness the growth of a literary powerhouse discovering the themes he will work with again and again. For Peter Straub, one can only guess that he was pushing his writing into unchartered territory, and he loved where it was leading him, and he loved it so much he decided he was going to stay there for a very, very long time.


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