Not long ago, I unintentionally re-read Peter Straub’s book Koko yet again. It was published in 1988, followed in 1990 by Mystery and in 1993 by The Throat. The three are known collectively as the “Blue Rose Series.”
What is it about these books that has led me to re-read them?
They’re called a series, but they don’t quite line up. Two characters appear in two of the books, but not in all three. Primary characters in one of the books don’t exist at all in the others, or maybe they do, but with different names and personalities. One of the main characters is a writer, and the final book suggests the other two were written by him. Things like this make the reader say, “WTF?” and go looking for details they half-remember. And that’s often a reason to start reading the whole set all over again.
They’re all rooted in Straub’s childhood in Milwaukee. The tropical island in Mystery is called “Mill Walk.” Three characters in Koko go to a wintry Milwaukee and finally figure out who the killer is. And the main character of The Throat grows up in a city called Millhaven, and has a life-changing experience as a kid that’s pretty much the same as that of the main character of Mystery AND of a young Peter Straub in the real, actual Milwaukee.
This paragraph from near the beginning of The Throat describes that incident:
At that moment I died–the boy named Timothy Underhill, the seven-year-old me, died of shock and injury. He had a fractured skull, his pelvis and his right leg were shattered, and he died. Such a moment is not visible from a sidewalk. I have the memory of sensation, of being torn from my body by a giant, irresistible force and being accelerated into another, utterly different dimension. Of blazing light. What remains is the sense of leaving the self behind, all personality and character, everything merely personal. All of that was gone, and something else was left. I want to think that I was aware of April [his sister, who was killed] far ahead of me, sailing like a leaf through some vast dark cloudgate. There was an enormous, annihilating light, a bliss, an ecstasy you have to die to earn. Unreasoning terror surrounds it and engulfs this memory, if that’s what it is. I dream about it two or three times a week, a little more frequently than I dream about the man I killed face-to-face. The experience was entirely nonverbal and, in some basic way, profoundly inhuman. One of my clearest and strongest impressions is that living people are not supposed to know.
Even though I’ve read this many times, it still gives me shivers.
“Twisty” is an inadequate word to describe these books. They are long, six or seven hundred pages, and all three feature some pretty dark stuff, such as serial murders and vivid scenes from the Vietnam War. The violent and grisly elements aren’t ends in themselves; they’re more like intensifiers for the theme of how evil manifests in human beings.
There are multiple villains in these books, and some are more villainous than others. Straub suggests that some people do horrible things for reasons beyond their control. They are victims as much as villains. Others choose to indulge their inner darkness, even when it’s within their capabilities to do otherwise. These are the real villains. In all three books, a complex and labyrinthine fictional trail brings the reader face to face with a truly evil human being. These books aren’t horror, but their effect is the same.
Then there’s Straub’s prose. Many scenes are set in unbeautiful or even terrible places, but his descriptions are vivid and detailed, like this one from Koko:
Far beneath in a wide valley, smokestacks pushed out grey clouds like wings that froze and hung in the black air. Small red fires burned and danced at the tops of columns, and red lights shone far down at the heads of trains that clanked slowly forward, showering sparks.
Another aspect of Straub’s Blue Rose books is that they shoulder aside many rules of writing. They’re full of scenes that really don’t contribute to the plot, and extra stuff about jazz music, sex tourism in Bangkok, the Gospel of Thomas, and other tangential topics. The names of two main characters differ by only one letter (and they are three-letter names). There are plenty of words that end in “-ly.” But these books are absorbing. I soaked right into them, and was happy to spend time there.
Do I recommend these books? Yes, but only to readers who like dark, slow burns with occasional violent jolts.
To quote a line from Mystery:
The world is half night–that was what he knew.