It was the cover more than anything else. And as much as we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, you have to admit the original paperback cover for Shadowland was grand. As many times as I saw it on the rack at the library, I didn’t get around to reading Shadowland until after I read Ghost Story. I was still in high school, probably around fifteen years old. Much too young to fully understand the book, but I found the beginning section at the boarding school was a part of the story I could relate to the most. And, like many of Straub’s works, you find yourself smack dab in the middle of a story then BAM, here comes the uppercut of bone chilling horror, knocking you out for the count. There’s horror here, but this is also a story of friendship, and betrayal. It’s also a story about the King of Cats. For a long time, Shadowland was my very favorite Straub novel, and it remains in my top three picks of his books today.
So we begin … “Once upon a time …” … or “Long ago, when we all lived in the forest …”
It was Stephen Graham Jones who told me that Shadowland was heavily influenced by The Magus by John Fowles. I believe he even provided a link to an interview with Straub, and interested parties can now find that information at the introduction of the current edition of Shadowland. After hearing this news from Jones, I immediately found a new, revised edition of The Magus and read it. What I found was a major mind-fuck of a novel, possibly one of Fowles best, able to crush your hold on reality without even lifting a finger into the world of the supernatural. Since then, I have not revisited Shadowland until now. Several years have passed, and rightfully so. I didn’t want my memories of The Magus to cloud my interpretation of Shadowland, so sometimes the distance helps.
It wasn’t until after I read Shadowland for the third time, about a decade ago, that I finally realized the book was written in first person. Talk about submerging the “I”. This unnamed character—or at least I don’t think he was named, and it doesn’t matter—takes us through the life of Tom Flanagan. We begin with him as an adult. Tom is a magician working dives for wages much beneath his caliber. Our narrator is a writer, and wants to tell us Tom’s story, and Tom gives him permission, insisting he start the story at the school. Straub then sets the pace and tells us a nice anecdote about The King of Cats, establishing that what we’re reading is closer to folklore and fairytale than an outright horror story. Shadowland is about The King of Cats, who is also the King of Magic, and what follows is a layered and nuanced tale about two boys discovering who they are, and what it really means to have the power of a God.
We spend over a hundred pages at Carson School, an all-male prep school that did its best to remain wedged firmly in conservative 1950’s America. Conformist, disciplined, and extremely snobby, this school allows us to meet our two main characters, Tom Flanagan and Del Nightingale, in the most raw environment. Quiet and timid Del, who dreams of following in his uncle’s footsteps as a great magician, has trouble fitting in with his classmates. Of course he would. Del’s family life is a mess, with absentee parents and no friends in the world. Tom sees Del, and sees a boy full of sorrow; he can’t help but to befriend him. As the boys navigate Carson, doing their best to steer clear of the sadist senior, Steve ‘Skeleton’ Ridpath, as well as a few brief cameos from Miles Teagarden, the protagonist of Straub’s earlier novel If You Could See Me Now, they find they need each other more than they care to admit. Del asks Tom to accompany him to his uncle’s house during summer break, but Tom refuses, as his father is dying and he knows he’s needed at his family’s side. After Tom’s father passes away, the next time Del asks Tom, he accepts. This is when the boy’s true education begins.
Coleman Collins is not just a magician, he is the magician, the best there is, and he aims to teach these two young boys about real magic. Much like a metaphysical drill sergeant, Collins knows to get into the boy’s heads, he’ll have to break them. And break them he does, as there’s a more urgent, somewhat sinister plot at play here. With an amazing cast of characters, including the haunting and enchanting Rose, and the menacing Mr. Peet and crew, Herbie Butters and the rest of the inhabitants of Shadowland, the boys soon learn that some locked doors are invitations, and their reality is certainly unstable. With each lesson by Collins, Tom begins to suspect that what he is experiencing is beyond mere trickery. What Collins wants is something Del wants more than anything else in the world, but Del is not to be the recipient of that vast power. The boys wrestle with their friendship, and their ultimate betrayal to one another, while Collins twists their minds with fantastic forbidden love quests that are doomed from the beginning, and harrowing danger at nearly every turn once the boys discover the secrets of Shadowland. Our narrator slips between time lines, speaking with Tom and Del’s former classmates, and finds that the tendrils of Shadowland’s power extends much deeper, and darker, than anyone could imagine.
Shadowland owes as much to the worlds of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm as it does to John Fowles. What Straub has done here is create the ultimate fairytale, nestled inside one helluva of a mind-fuck story, full of rich characterization and suspense. The story is logical yet unpredictable, as even as we find ourselves locked in a very familiar fairytale trope, Straub exceeds our expectations and surprises us with twists that hit us right in the heart. Starting at the beginning only solidifies our desire to see these character through to the bitter end. When our narrator realizes he’s standing in the charred rumble of what was once Shadowland at the end of the story, we feel that finality and know that though the building may be gone, magic never dies.
As we slip into the October Country, Tattered Tomes returns next month with a profile of Peter Straub’s most well-known novel, Ghost Story. I’m excited that my partner in this yearlong endeavor, Benoit Lelievre from Dead End Follies, gets to read this book—I think it will be his favorite that he’s read this year for our Straubathon. We still haven’t discussed if we’ll read the magnificent Stephen King/Peter Straub collaboration The Talisman yet, but that option is on the table for now. Until then, find a copy of Shadowland wherever you can, and dive into the story. There’s a locked door at the end of the hall, and you’re invited to the magic inside.