In 1966, something terrible happened on the agronomy field at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. The survivors never revealed the truth to the police. One of them spent the next thirty some odd years in a mental institution. Another became a professional thief. A third become a senators wife and a fourth became an advocate for the blind. The fifth and sixth traveled across the country for years, spinning out ancient, occult knowledge for the price of a meal and a couch to sleep on. When his current novel dissolves, Lee Harwell–husband to one of the survivors–decides to finally piece together what happened all those years ago. Thus begins Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter.
Lee Harwell was a member of a tight group of friends in early 1960s Madison, Wisconsin. By chance, his friends met a guru’s attractive assistant astrologer one afternoon in their favorite coffee joint. She convinces them to talk with the guru because their astrological signs are right. Lee is skeptical and doesn’t go. For this, he is cut off from his friends as they fall further and further under the charismatic guru’s spell. The group’s occult explorations end in a violent episode in a campus field (sorry, Latin scholars, about that redundancy) that leaves one of their number dead and another disappeared. Lee’s wife, also named Lee but better known as Eel, and other friends will not speak of what happened. Even nearly forty years later, whatever happened haunts them.
As Lee Harwell investigates, Straub slowly reveals more of what happened. At first, a reader might be able to dismiss their stories as hallucinations. Soon, however, there are too many similarities in their stories to explain away with science. The group saw a Bear King and a Roaring Queen, and a terrible, unspeakable monster that ate one of their number. This might be enough to create a novel, but Straub keeps right on peeling away more layers, showing more nuances.
Lee’s interest was originally sparked by a series of murders in Milwaukee and these murders form a second theme in A Dark Matter. Lee comes across a manuscript written by a former detective who believed that he had found the serial killer, but could never find any concrete evidence because the killer was just too careful. That man turned out to be the uncle of the frat boy killed in the agronomy field. This frat boy, Keith Hayward, disturbs nearly everyone he meets. Other characters say again and again that there’s something wrong with him, though they don’t quite know what. Eel and her other friends try to get him excluded from their group, but their guru, Spenser Mallon, assures them that it will all be taken care of. Mallon never reveals what he intended to do in the field. In fact, he never gets the chance to speak for himself in this book. But Keith Hayward doesn’t walk away from the experience.
Straub will leave you pondering at the end of A Dark Matter. Was Keith supposed to die? Who are the mysterious dog men who follow Mallon and Lee and Mallon’s group and warn them away from an action? What was Mallon, inept as he was, really trying to do? Was it all real or just mass hallucination? But these questions are not as frustrating as you might think. The ending (rather, endings) don’t come across as unfinished. We might not be getting answers because the characters themselves haven’t worked it all out yet either. A Dark Matter will definitely take you on a trip, no matter what you end up deciding about its meaning.