Mr. X by Peter Straub (1999): Very much a transitional novel for Straub between his particular form of literary horror and a much more postmodern, self-reflexive mode of weirdness that persists in his fiction to this day. While there are scenes of graphic violence early in the novel, they eventually give way to an increasingly loopy narrative involving doppelgangers, psychics, superpowers, time travel, jazz, precocious children, and the enduring appeal of the supernatural fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.
Straub’s novels since the late 1980’s have been preoccupied with serial killers, for the most part in full pop-culture Omnipotent, Omniscient Killer Mode. Mr. X does play with that model to good effect at points, especially towards the end of the novel, as assorted secrets are revealed — offering a mirror image to the hyper-competent serial killers of so many of Straub’s previous and subsequent novels.
The narrator, who is (probably) not the eponymous serial killer, is an engaging fellow. There’s a gigantic, never-explicitly-stated ‘secret’ to the characters in the novel which you may pick up as you’re reading it, or if you consult interviews about the novel. I think the ‘secret’ causes more problems than it solves while also causing the novel to sidestep exploring the many ramifications of that secret, at least one of which actually needs to be addressed for the novel to fully make sense. It’s a choice that’s at once too clever by half and half as clever as it needs to be.
Other than that, readers may find that things get a bit twee as the novel progresses. Or a lot twee. There’s a child character who is probably in the top ten of ‘Most Annoying Peter Straub Characters Ever,’ and a few eccentric aunts who come close. Your results may vary.
But if you want narrative closure, you should probably read another novel. As with so many of Straub’s novels after this one, closure is not on the table, or certainty. We’re questioning identity here, not resolving it. Recommended.
Harbinger: Children of the Eighth Day: written by Jim Shooter; illustrated by David Lapham and John Dixon (1991-92): Now that a rebooted Harbinger has been back in the comics marketplace for a year-and-a-half, it’s interesting to look at Version 1.0. Created by ousted Marvel Comics EIC Jim Shooter as a theoretically more realistic riff on Marvel’s X-Men, Harbinger is an odd mix of dense dialogue and sudden breakneck action.
One of the problems here, corrected in the reboot, lies with the antagonist, Harada, and his evil Harbinger Foundation, which among other things collects and trains people with super-powers (‘psiots’ in the terminology of the Valiant universe). We’re told he’s bad, and we get a couple of pro forma superhero battles between the ‘Renegades’ who are the protagonists and Harada’s forces, but that’s about it.
And suddenly, rather than developing the ongoing battle between the Renegades and Harada, the book suddenly takes off for a superhero battle with aliens on the Moon in issue 3. Then the group breaks up and reforms in the space of an issue.
Events move so quickly that characters, and their decisions, become weightless. It doesn’t help that the Renegades, all of them teenagers, are neither written nor drawn as such. They’re pretty much your standard squabbling superhero group, one of dozens. They just use words like “slut” and “hosebag” a lot more than the X-Men ever did, and tell a lot more fat jokes at the expense of one of the characters. Recommended for historical purposes only.