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Letter adds a droll twist to nightmarish novel

"Dream-danger" becomes real danger in Peter Straub's nightmarish novel "Mrs. God" -- a gothic blend of refined ghost story and sheer pulp.

But if the book is, by the end, one horrible ride, it is not without its saving graces -- among them Straub's decidedly intelligent wit and prose.

The story, for starters, has a Jamesian feel, sending an American professor of English to a fabled British manor where, a la "The Turn of the Screw," all is soon eerie -- and not at all what William Standish expected when he was granted a coveted three-week stay at Esswood House.

"It's better never to leave Esswood," Standish is told on his first night there -- after a dinner of loin of veal with morel sauce (accompanied by whiskey and a rare Bordeaux). Inebriated, Standish misses the menace in the message. Or perhaps he chooses not to hear it.

For he has a "noble mission" at Esswood: he wishes to study the poems and other writings of his "almost grandmother," his paternal grandfather's first wife Isobel Standish, who was a guest at Esswood herself, long ago.

Upon first seeing the house, he finds it perfect: "The whole great white structure seemed balanced, in harmony with itself and the countryside around it. What might have been forbidding -- the whiteness and severity of its facade, the flight of steps that might have reminded him of a government building -- had been humanized by constant use."

The library, where he will work, strikes him initially as "too good to use, like some delicate clockwork toy or Faberge egg."

The whole place, Standish muses, is "a treasure house. Manuscripts of unknown works by some of the century's greatest writers, early handwritten drafts of famous poems and novels! It was like coming on a warehouse full of unknown paintings by Matisse, Cezanne and Picasso."

Standish's host, Robert Wall -- purportedly the aging son of Esswood's onetime gamekeeper -- tells of growing up on the manor grounds and meeting, out walking, such luminaries as Henry James and Virginia Woolf.

"Their gratitude for that pleasure led them to contribute to our library -- which is of course why it is unique," Wall tells Standish. "Every literary guest we had donated manuscripts, papers, diaries, notebooks, drafts, material they knew to be significant as well as things they must have considered nearly worthless. Of course, some of the latter have turned out to be among our most important possessions."

Standish, armed only with Isobel's book of poems "Crack, Whack and Wheel," settles in as the latest Esswood Fellow. Behind him is all the treachery of belonging to an English department that he suspects doesn't appreciate him -- and all the anxiety he finds in being married to a seven months-pregnant woman.

Not that any of this leaves his unconscious as "Mrs. God" becomes a metaphor for the way Standish looks at his life. His American naivete becomes matched only by his growing paranoia (tenure will never be his, and the baby isn't either) plus no one else seems to be living at Esswood and he is served only veal with morel sauce -- Isobel's favorite dish -- by women who can't be seen although their laughter can be heard, nearby yet afar.

Esswood's dread secrets begin to surface as Standish starts to disassemble. He had thought to "understand what Isobel had written even more than Isobel understood it" and now knows that her work can never be understood except as clues to the terrible truths of Esswood.

"If truly no accident or coincidence in universe," Standish writes in professorial shorthand, "then narrative is superseded for everything is simultaneous. To be here is to be within Isobel's poetry, literally and metaphorically, for world without coincidence is world which is all metaphor. Key to the nonsense poem. Syntax the only source of meaning."

At this point, Straub's intriguing ghost tale morphs into a senseless horror story with all the attendant blood and gore of such. But again, there are memorable touches by Straub -- as in the ax Standish has been wielding resting when he does, lying "beside his chair like a sleeping pet."

Straub, of course, is known for his devotion to man's dark side -- so, if things get bloody, he isn't going to spare us the details. They are apparently his delight, and that surely of his many followers.

Thus even the disturbing baby references in "Mrs. God" -- and they are legion -- make horror-fiction sense. Plus, Straub keeps Standish ever the English professor -- finding a deadly yet starry night "like a sentence in a foreign language, the new sentence that went on and on until at first the letters and then the whole words became too small to read. Standish walked out to stand beneath the great sentence."

Later, he will claim, "Every human life fit into that grand and endless sentence."

Straub is also amused, one gathers, as he writes, having Standish find old photographs taken by Isobel of the likes of Ford Madox Ford and T.S. Eliot, the latter "hunching and making a face like a cat."

It should be noted that this is Straub's second stab at "Mrs. God," which was first published in novella form nearly 22 years ago. Its title, one gathers, refers to Edith Seneschal, the late patroness of the arts who drew so many notables to Esswood -- where her small children, said to be sickly, were seldom seen.

But one can't be sure. Straub himself makes this clear in a strange but wonderful posting on his website -- a letter from his obvious alter ego, the fictional Putney Tyson Ridge Ph.D., who conveniently passed away nine years ago.

Reading this letter -- a master stroke by Straub -- one finds the indignant Ridge referring to "Mrs. God" as a "deliberately meaningless bit of narrative perversity" based on a story Ridge himself told to Straub and now regrets:

"Peter admits that he wished to invoke the example of one Robert Aickman, whose laboriously mandarin efforts sensible readers have long deemed unreadable. This is Freudian mumbo-jumbo of a deliberate, willed incoherence. I gather it has something to do with a baby."

The coup de grace is the fictive Ridge's assertion that the title of the book "has no discernible significance whatsoever."

Coupled with Ridge's letter-of-outrage, "Mrs. God" actually becomes FUN.

Karen Brady is a retired Buffalo News columnist.


Mrs. God

By Peter Straub


192 pages, $23.95