Tattered Tomes: Into Dragon Valley–Koko by Peter Straub, Revisited

Koko coverI came by Peter Straub’s Koko first by mass market paperback. I remember distinctly not reading it when it first released in 1988, mainly because I was a junior in college and my studies and a steady girlfriend kept me wrapped up tight. I was in love and behind the eight-ball, so I couldn’t be bothered with reading. All good things come to an end and when the paperback hit the shelves, I bought it and eagerly began reading it.

That was not a good experience. Twenty-one years old, still wet behind the ears, and completely unable to grasps the horrors of the Vietnam war, I couldn’t finish the book and didn’t return to it until nearly ten years later. Ten years may not seem like a lot of time, or maybe it’s too much time, but during those years I worked hard in retail sales, meeting all kinds of people, some good and some bad, and those experiences hardened me to the human condition. I believe to fully understand Koko, one must be a little cynical, somewhat toughened by what life has to offer. Today, the book stands as one of Straub’s most emotional books.  It starts off strong but breaks you down with the first few pages. The characters are rich and fully developed, and the mystery within is as labyrinthine as the mind of a madman.

My compadre, Benoit Lelievre of Dead End Follies, agreed to a Straubathon read-off this year, primarily because he was unfamiliar with Straub’s work, and it just sounded like a kick-ass thing to do. He scored first, and he enjoyed the book. Koko is part of a larger work of Straub’s, often referred to as ‘The Blue Rose Trilogy’, which also includes the novels Mystery and The Throat, as well as a few ancillary short-stories. Chronologically, the order is Mystery, Koko, then The Throat, but we decided to read them in publication order to see if there was a method to Straub’s madness. Mystery gets the treatment in March, with The Throat profile coming in May.

The story concerns a group of men who served in Vietnam: Michael Poole, Tina Pumo, Conor Linklater and Harry Beevers, who was their lieutenant in the war. They meet at the unveiling of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., though there’s other, more crucial, business to attend to. It seems that there is a recent string of murders that are interconnected by the calling card, KOKO. The word itself is something all the men know about. Another member of their group, Tim Underhill, left the war yet remained in Asia, writing novels that lead the men to believe that this killer is their KOKO, it’s possibly Tim Underhill, and they want to bring him home, to justice. At least, that’s the plan. Tina, knee-deep in the restaurant business with a flaky Chinese girlfriend named Maggie Lah, is unable to help the men as he’s in the middle of renovating his restaurant before the cockroaches take over. Conor, unemployed and a teetering alcoholic, takes some cash from Beevers, who is also unemployed. Poole is the only somewhat stable member of the group, though his relationship with his wife has been on the outs ever since his son died a few years earlier. All of these men are haunted by their experiences in Vietnam, but as much as those terrible events try to break them down, they manage to keep their heads above water and get on with their lives the only way they know how. It’s obvious the war made a mark on them, and at the time the book was written, people were just starting to understand the ramifications of PTSD. Straub could have made these men broken and utter failures, and in many ways, they are failures, but they all provide backbone to one another, one’s faults becoming another’s strengths.

While the men travel to Singapore, then to Bangkok, KOKO travels stateside, continuing his path of death. The guys run into dead-end after dead-end on information of the last known whereabouts of their friend, Tim Underhill. Interspersed between these scenes are flashbacks of their time in Vietnam, both in memory and in dream, as well as the on-going trials and tribulations of the relationship between Tina and Maggie Lah stateside. One of the more cumbersome parts of the book is the relationship of Tina and Maggie, which gets a little more time on the page than some modern readers might allow. It’s difficult to pin this down as a distraction, because those passages are full of some of Straub’s best writing, and it is critical to understand their relationship. We eventually come to love Tina and Maggie, and it hurts us in the end.

The flashback scenes are fully rendered, realistic yet surreal. You can feel the mosquitos sticking to your sweaty skin. Meticulously researched, Straub sets us right in Dragon Valley and Ia Thuc, where an atrocity occurred, and one the men will never forget. Straub’s writing is straight-forward, the tone somber with light touches of humor and very tight with the detail. And while he doesn’t rely on heavy description very much, there are parts of the story that definitely fall into the weird without a hint of the supernatural. Especially the scenes with KOKO. We never really find out his identity until the end, though there’s a major clue in the first chapter that you won’t realize until the final reveal. KOKO’s scenes are visceral yet dream-like, unnatural and strange. It’s a good idea to stay out of the killer’s mind in fiction, but when you nail it like this, we can’t help but to admire it. As the story progresses, the pace quickens, with intercuts of the men’s investigation and Tina and Maggie at the restaurant. As with any character driven story, the plot is only as good as the characters are realized. Straub makes this personal, as he does with most of his fiction, and when the bad things happen, they hurt us deeply.

Tim Underhill is eventually found, which is good for us readers as he returns later to close the trilogy and appear in a couple of other novels. The scenes leading to Underhill are some of the best in the book, the tension is ratcheted up very high, and the anticipation is thick enough to taste. There’s also a sense of fulfillment here, as Straub has laid his groundwork so you know Underhill isn’t KOKO, so you’re somewhat relieved to finally see this, and happy to let him into your life. Tim Underhill is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting characters Straub has conceived, and by keeping him off stage for such a long period in the book, we get a better understanding of him, coming to realize that Underhill, in a way, is Straub.

Though Koko is not a supernatural story, there are elements that scream creepy. One such scene near the end of the book, is possibly one of the strongest examples of non-supernatural weird in literature. The men have returned stateside and are desperately searching for clues that will lead them to KOKO’s identity. They’ve taken it upon themselves to visit the parents of two of the men from their platoon who they believe are either dead or missing. One such visit, on Muffin Street, lingers in the mind long after you finish the book. Much like the scene at the end of Fincher’s film Zodiac, where Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith character meets with Charles Fleischer’s Bob Vaughn character to examine some film posters in Vaughn’s basement, this scene in Koko is surreal in the imagery, with marble grape clusters, darkened bedrooms full of shadow, and an overbearing mother clearly not operating in the realm of sanity. Again, nothing supernatural here, but Straub nonetheless pulls off massive creepiness while keeping it grounded in reality, which makes the scene even scarier.

To say any more about the story itself would be an incredible disservice to those who haven’t read the book yet. And if you haven’t … shame on you. This reread was spent on the page, and with an audiobook, which was excellent. My first I might add, and it won’t be my last. Koko will not help you understand what happened in Vietnam, but it will give you a better understanding of those who sacrificed so much for so little. It will also show you that not all monsters have hideous faces and demonic forms. They hide inside us all, just waiting for their chance to escape.

Me and Benoit will be returning to the ‘Blue Rose’ Trilogy in March with my reread of Mystery. This will be the second Straub for Benoit to read, so I’m very curious to see what he has to say. Next month, Tattered Tomes returns with a reread of The Exorcist by the late William Peter Blatty. Until then, keep on hitting those used book stores. You never know where you’ll find a Tattered Tome.


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1 comment

    • David Ryder on September 6, 2023 at 6:59 am
    • Reply

    God I remember reading KOKO, Mystery and Throat for the first time years ago. The feeling of awe, in the hands of a master, I felt for the first time I’d finally found someone actually better than Stephen King. Like King, but deeper, richer, more literary. That sounds snobby, a bit I know, but Straub’s prose is a level up, still very visceral, though – he sucks you into the story and forces you to keep turning pages. Thanks for the review, it’s wonderful to find people who share the love for Straub. RIP Mr. Straub, horror lost a prince when you passed.

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