Perdido: A Fragment From A Work In Progress by Peter Strawb (book review).

I’m fascinated by unfinished works of fiction. I can imagine that many people don’t see the point in reading something that hasn’t been completed. But for me, such pieces are endlessly intriguing. There are those left incomplete upon the author’s death, such as Charles Dickens’ ‘The Mystery Of Edwin Drood’ and those abandoned by the author during their lifetime, such as Jane Austen’s ‘The Watsons’. Peter Straub’s ‘Perdido: A Fragment From A Work In Progress’ falls into the latter category.

Straub, who sadly died in September 2022 after a long illness, was an American horror and dark fantasy writer who is probably best known for co-writing ‘The Talisman’ (1984) and its sequel ‘Black House’ (2001) with Stephen King. He wrote the roughly 15,000 words of this abandoned novella a quarter of a century ago in the summer of 1998, after having a lurid dream about trying to find a friend he’d lost in a luxurious hotel. However, when the storyline got increasingly complicated, the month that the author had set aside to work on it ran out and he was forced to abandon the manuscript in order to resume work on the novel he was actually supposed to be writing that year.

My review copy is from Subterranean Press, who published it in May 2015 as a limited edition of 400 signed and numbered hardback copies alongside a hardcover trade edition. These are now sold out, although copies are available second-hand. An eBook version appears to be available from Amazon USA, although not from the UK equivalent. In passing, it’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time that ‘Perdido’ has been published. In 2001, it appeared as one of 18 contributions to the anthology ‘The Museum Of Horrors’, which subsequently won the World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology in 2002. Used copies of this anthology can be found in the usual places, providing an alternative way to read ‘Perdido’.

The narrative pulls you in from the start. American journalist Bobby Carver and his wife Margie go on holiday to an exclusive luxury resort called Perdido, located halfway up a mountain in Norway. The idea is suggested to them by Carver’s friend Silsbee, a dentist who won’t stop going on about how amazing his time at Perdido was. The place is so exclusive that you can’t get a brochure or book your vacation there in any normal way. Instead, you have to put a personal ad in the New York Times, giving your name and address and stating ‘If invited, will accept.’ Initially, Carver and his wife are deeply sceptical, knowing Silsbee’s tendency to exaggerate. In the end, though, the idea is too tempting to ignore and they place their advert in the paper. A month later, they receive an invitation to Perdido. Perhaps Silsbee wasn’t making it all up after all?

As Chapter 2 opens, Straub appears to switch to a completely different story, told by a middle-aged composer of contemporary classical music. However, by the end of the chapter, it becomes clear that this unnamed narrator is, in fact, the Carvers’ son, as he starts to recall his memories of their trip to Perdido, which took place three decades earlier when he was eighteen and waiting to head off to college.

This is where things start to get really interesting. Some of the details recalled by this narrator don’t match up to those told to us by Bobby Carver. Is he an unreliable narrator or does he simply have a poor memory?

Soon enough we return to the original storyline, as Carver and Margie travel to Perdido and find out that Silsbee wasn’t exaggerating about anything. The place is truly extraordinary. Will they both find what they’re looking for there and, if they do, how will the experience change them?

This may ‘only’ be a fragment of an unfinished novella but I found Straub’s story to be engaging and enjoyable. The four main characters: Carver; his wife Margie; his friend Silsbee and the narrator of the second storyline are brought rapidly to life by the author and I found myself wanting to know what happened to each one of them. Carver is a complex character, simultaneously self-confident enough to write quirky opinion columns for his local newspaper and yet unable to build a relationship of equals with his wife. Margie is a strong woman who knows what she wants and seems to have little respect for her husband, perhaps with more than a little justification. Silsbee may seem prone to exaggeration and self-aggrandisement but what he says about Perdido turns out to be the truth. The narrator of the second storyline comes across, both in his middle-aged present and his teenage past, as someone whose musical gifts seem to be more of a burden to him than a blessing. As a result, he comes across as a rather sad figure. Together, these four characters provide a rich canvas on which the novella could have been continued. If only…

In similar fashion, the setting of Perdido, once Carver and Margie get there, is painted so beautifully that I would love to have seen more of it and to have found out further details of the magic that seems to be infused into its very structure.

I should note in passing that the book ends with a two page afterword from the author which explains the history of the story’s genesis, writing and abandonment. It also helpfully clarifies some of the seeming conflicts between the two different storylines.

It is a great shame that Straub abandoned this story due to pressures of time. Nonetheless, I’m glad that he didn’t destroy the fragment that exists and I’m grateful to Subterranean Press for bringing it to a wider audience. Some might assume that an unfinished work like this can only ever be of interest to a small audience of academics and the author’s superfans. I beg to disagree. I haven’t previously read anything by Straub but I found ‘Perdido’ to be a highly entertaining read. It may ‘only’ be a fragment, but it’s a fragment that’s still worthy of your time.

Patrick Mahon

March 2023

(pub: Subterranean Press, 2015. 72 page deluxe hardback. Price: $35.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-680-9)

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