Peter Straub is one of the newly emerging masters of the genre dominated by Stephen King and with "Mr. X", he proves a worthy successor.
The book revolves around the experiences of Ned Dunstan, a computer programmer. The book begins with Ned describing his colourful history, where as a child he stayed with different families, while his mother flitted in and out of his life.The strange thing about Ned is that on every birthday, he gets visions of a strange man who brutally murders people and taunts him. He calls this person Mr. X. Ned goes to college, where studies and society take their toll on him. On a visit to his adopted home before his finals, Ned meets his mother, who wants Ned to go with her. Confused and disturbed, he goes through his finals where mysterious things hapen to him. After trying to run away and live on his own, he is found and then, he finally takes off to live his life.
The scene changes to the present, where Ned is going back to his native town - Edgerton - because of a strong feeling that his mother is going to die. On his way, he befriends an Assistant D.A. who's going to Edgerton to investigate Stewart Hatch, one of its most influential personalities. Ned gets to Edgerton, where he meets Laurie Hatch, Stewart's wife. After falling in love with both women, Ned gets around to visiting his mother.
All the while, a parallel story is being narrated, in the form of a diary written by the mysterious Mr.X. From the diary, we discover that he was originally from a very rich family and went to a military school. But a journey into the strange woods near his house, give him powers which are truly superhuman. His final "education" is through a book called "The Dunwich Horror", a fictional book by H.P.Lovecraft, in which Mr. X finds the answers to his life. After a spate of killings, he embarks on a career in crime, all the while waiting to complete what he believes in his destiny - to be the harbinger of the Apocalypse for the Gods.
Ned, meanwhile, learns the name of his mysterious father from his mother before she dies. He then embarks on a trail to discover this man and to uncover his past, which seems to get murkier and murkier. Here enters the rest of his family - his mother's aunts, her uncle and others. Ned soon starts realising who he realy his, when he finds out about the legends of the Dunstans. Soon, he's unravelling links betweenthe Hatches, the Dunstans, the town's history and discovering shocking details - like the existence of a brother, his ability to travel through time and the identity of his father.
The book is exceptionally well written. Straub takes a wonderfully complicated plot and presents it to us in a way that keeps you stuck to the book. The plot keeps going back and forth, but somehow Straub seems to remind of the salient facts at every turn, while at the same time adding more detail. The well-spaced jumps between the story and the diary of Mr. X do wonders in adding to the curiosity. Bit by bit, he reveals the full details of his masterful story to us in a way which excludes guessing about the end. Also, his descriptions of the quaint old town and its history makes for engrossing reading.
The characters are well-defined and each comes into his/her own, adding their important bit to the story, right from the confused, yet ingenious Ned, to the formidable aunts to the beautiful Laurie, to the various criminals. All of them are believable and close to home and this adds to the book's value.
The book is not quite as full of pure horror or even terror, but it does have an edge to it which might give people a few unstable moments. All in all, this makes for great reading and Straub goes down on my "to-be-watched" authors without fail.This article was first published on 23 Nov 2000.