01/02/2012. Contributed by Pauline Morgan
pub: Subterranean Press. 287 page deluxe hardback. Price: $35.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-295-5.
check out website: www.subterraneanpress.co
In the process of writing a book, an author will often have a plethora of ideas surrounding the central theme or competing with the thrust of the plot. Often he knows far more about the lives of his characters than appears in the book. A reader can speculate as to what has happened in their lives to bring them to this point. An author who knows his characters well may not have to write anything down in order to draw on earlier influences. Others incorporate it into the book but ultimately remove it as it slows down or otherwise detracts from the action that is the focus of the novel. The material is never wasted and occasionally, it is fascinating and strong enough to be shaped into a short story.
‘The Juniper Tree’ contains four stories that are related to Peter Straub’s ‘Blue Rose’ trilogy (‘Koko’, ‘Mystery’ and ‘The Throat’) but if you are unfamiliar with these, don’t worry. Each story is self-contained and provides a harrowing insight into the formation of the characters final disposition. The interview with Straub by Bill Sheenan at the back of this book answers some of the questions as to the connections of these stories with trilogy.
‘Blue Rose’ is a story of sibling bullying. Within the five children of the dysfunctional Beevers family, there is a pecking order, with Little Eddie at the bottom of the heap. His ten year-old brother, Harry, has already got the younger boy scared, to the point of forcing him to give up his new birthday toy before destroying it. Harry has already learned to lie and torment. When he discovers a book on hypnotism, he tries it out on Little Eddie. The key he gives him to go back into the trance is “Blue Rose” and when their mother’s precious relics of her past are destroyed, Harry uses his power mercilessly, knowing that to avoid trouble for himself, he has to cause harm to his brother. A disturbed child grows up to be the disturbed man of ‘Koko’ but was written earlier as a way of understanding the character Straub was creating.
‘The Juniper Tree’ tells of the sexual grooming and abuse of a young boy. The seven year-old narrator already feels he is a failure as he doesn’t live up to his father’s expectations of his athletic skills. In the summer, when he is supposed to attending a play centre while his parents work, he actually slips off to the cinema. He falls in with his abuser because the man seems to be interested in him as a person.
‘Bunny Is Good Bread’ again takes a central theme of abuse. This time, though, it is not calculated but more a consequence of other factors. Fee is five years old and his mother is dying. His father spends all his time and energy caring for her. He forces Fee to help but won’t accept it from anyone else or allow anyone to show kindness to Fee in case they are interfering. As a result, Fee is neglected, often shut out of the apartment even on bitterly cold days. The experience of childhood neglect and seeing the unpleasantness of his mother in extremis naturally has an effect on his later attitudes to life and violence. Originally written as part of ‘The Throat’, it did not make the final editorial cut.
While the first three stories deal with childhood trauma and the events that eventually shape the man, ‘The Ghost Village’ has a Vietnam War setting and a shorter form was originally part of ‘Koko’. The men of the patrol who find the deserted village of the title are already under stress. They have personal issues as well as being under fire and seeing their comrades injured or killed. It touches on what it was really like for untried soldiers dropped into the centre of a messy conflict and their reactions to what they encountered. It makes you wonder if anyone returned home sane.
All the stories in this volume are disturbing to the reader, as they are meant to be – it is not suitable reading matter for the sensitive soul. They are also very powerful studies of the traumas that some children and men have to cope with. Not all of them do. This is a volume of unpleasant reading but insightful showing Straub at his best.
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