When Peter Straub’s The Throat first released in 1993, it was a weird time for me. I was stretching my own writing limbs at the time, attempting novels of my own. One idea, which I’ve revisited many times without success, became a lifelong obsession for me. That story will be written one day, but it was an idea that came too soon at the time, without the benefit of experience the writing life provides. I like to think that Straub’s The Throat is one of those stories that would benefit from experience, namely the previous two novels of the trilogy, Koko and Mystery. When I first read the book, in paperback sometime in late 1995, I was under the impression that it was indeed a real sequel of both of the previous novels; not just a continuation of the story, which it is, but more an effort to finally get the story right. This begs the question Did the author plan it this way from the beginning?
Timothy Underhill, the main character of The Throat and a peripheral focus character in Koko, is without a doubt Straub’s most compelling character. For all practical purposes, he is Straub, and the choice of finally examining him in the first person gives us a chance to see into the mind of both the character and the author with startling clarity. Considering the Blue Rose Trilogy as a whole, it makes sense that Underhill would be there to close the story out. Fictionally, he’s written about it more than once, much like Straub has, and if there’s one thing Straub understands it is obsessions. Given Underhill’s unwillingness to let the story go, Straub not only has a chance to revisit his old stomping grounds and discover the answers for himself, but to share what he finds with readers in a way that is captivating and entertaining. Underhill’s persistence is Straub’s fascination, and neither are ready to give up anytime soon.
The main focus of The Throat is a religious studies professor named John Ransom, whose wife April was viciously attacked and left for dead, the words BLUE ROSE written on a wall near where they found her body. Ransom served in Vietnam with Underhill, and knew Tim wrote a book about Blue Rose called The Divided Man. Apparently, someone else knows about that old string of murders as well, and is working their way back down memory lane, leaving bodies in the same locales as the original murders. Underhill’s own sister, also named April, was found in much the same way years before, dead in a tunnel with BLUE ROSE scrawled above her body. It’s easy to see why Ransom contacted Underhill, and even easier to see why Underhill would go back to Millhaven to find out all he could about these murders he thought he had solved so long ago. And going back to Millhaven means we get to see Tom Pasmore, the main character from Mystery, again, albeit much older and more in tune with the modern technology of the time. Once Underhill sets foot in Millhaven things begin to spiral out of control, and what follows is one of the most engrossing mystery thrillers ever written.
To say the story is labyrinthine is a huge understatement, perhaps the understatement of a lifetime. Hell, there’s even a minotaur in the pages, daunting Underhill along the way, challenging him to face his demons. It really makes no sense to break the story down here, as I don’t have that much time and any more description will certainly spoil the story, and the effect it will have on readers who have never read it. The Blue Rose murders, touched on briefly in both Koko and Mystery, are the thrust of the story in The Throat. The past here is dangerous, in both knowledge of it, and how our memory distorts the past, allowing us little escape from the violence it can bring up to the surface.
Secrets can kill, and the past is relentless in protecting its secrets.
The story here is huge, and takes a lot of pages to get down, and while some might think of The Throat as just another bloated, overwritten, thriller that needs a good edit, the truth is that every single word matters in this story. Every. Single. Word. Since I’ve read this one a few times, I chose the audiobook format this time, and the experience has been wonderful. Regardless of how you take it in, The Throat is an experience that sends you directly down into the rabbit hole. The cast is incredible, with none of the characters sounding the same or feeling wasted. Straub manages to juggle the past and the present with lengthy yet pertinent flashbacks that have repercussions to the story today, building character and circumstances, diving deep into the emotional core of the players while maintaining a constant flow of action and movement. As each revelation brings us closer to the answer to the puzzle, more questions pop up that beg to be answered, and often what we find makes a difference between life and death.
This is a story about ghosts. No, not supernatural ghosts, not in that kind of ethereal sense. Here we are more interested in the revenant kind of ghosts of memory and the past, kicking up dirt in the physical world, holding their secrets close and fiercely protecting them in deadly ways. Since we are dealing specifically with the Blue Rose murders here, it makes sense to use characters already familiar with the case to solve the mystery. It’s as though Straub needed these characters fleshed out in a way to help himself, and inevitably us the readers, to fully comprehend just how deep the rabbit hole goes. One of the characters, a serial killer named Walter Dragonette, is the focus of several chapters, and his personal account is one of the most chilling sections of the book. Yes, Dragonette is a killer, just not the one we are ultimately seeking, yet his story is not some kind of underhanded red-herring, but a way to illuminate just how real these ghosts are.
“Because dead people are just like you and me, they still want things. They look at us all the time, and they miss being alive. We have taste and color and smells and feelings, and they don’t have any of those things. They stare at us, they don’t miss anything. They really see what’s going on, and we hardly ever really see that. We’re too busy thinking about things and getting everything wrong, so we miss ninety percent of what’s happening.” –Walter Dragonette, The Throat.
Dragonette summed up the whole book in one neat little package that merely opens the abyss laid out before us. To know, we must understand the truth, and this is the force that drives Tim Underhill. Beyond justice, he wants the truth, no matter what the cost. And Dragonette was right, because Underhill spends too much time thinking about what’s right and gets everything wrong, over and over again, until at last, the truth is before his eyes, all he needs to do is open them.
Does one need to read Koko and Mystery prior to reading The Throat? That’s a good question, and maybe I’m not the one to answer it, as my experience came in the order the books were published. I will say, in my opinion now, that no, you can read The Throat as a standalone, but if you’re here to discover more about the books, and know that these stories are peripherally connected by characters and events, then a better question would be: Why would you not want to read those books prior to reading The Throat? My partner is this year long Straubathon, Beniot Lelievre from Dead End Follies, may be able to answer that question in more detail once he finishes reading, as this is his first time reading the Blue Rose trilogy. That was one of the many reasons for revisiting these novels, to see if we could find a method to Straub’s madness. I’ve purposely avoided reading all interviews with Straub concerning his writing process for these books, and I can now say in retrospect I honestly don’t want to know if he planned these books out beforehand. I prefer to think they sprung from his imagination organically, all part of a lifelong obsession with secrets and the people who keep them. In Straub’s case, maybe some secrets need to remain in the dark, buried and far out of sight.
Tattered Tomes will return in its regular format in July, when me and Benoit will continue our Straubathon with Floating Dragon. Following that, we’ll visit Shadowland sometime in August or September. As we begin the race to Halloween and Ghost Story in October, we hope you all find a way to join us in reading these classic novels, either again or for the very first time.