Book Review : Peter Straub - Shadowland (1980)
American author Peter Straub wrote seventeen novels and countless sort stories, mostly ranging from mystery to supernatural horror. I've now read five of these and they're all straightforwardly enjoyable. They're long, Dickensian novels obsessed with the American middle class. I mean, he's cool. Some of his novels are noticeably better, but he's fairly enjoyable if a little long-winded. Shadowland, the successor of Peter Straub's most iconic novel Ghost Story, is nothing like the others, though. Reading it made me feel like I got suckered into listening to tales of Harry Potter's rambling grandfather's youth. It's not objectively terrible, but it aged like your single, chain-smoking, tanning salon addicted aunt.
Shadowland is the story of Tom Flanagan and Del Nightingale, two young students bonding over their love for magic tricks and a shared distaste for a bully named Steve Ridpath. They suffer his sadistic impulses for an entire school year before escaping to a place called Shadowland in the summer, to spend time with Del's uncle Coleman Collins, a retired magician. The original idea was to pursue their common interest for magic, but nothing in Shadowland is what it seams. Tom and Del were brought in for reasons they didn't initially understand and it will break their heart and change their lives forever.
So, Shadowland is a fantasy novel featuring teenage sorcerers on a coming-of-age journey. Sounds familiar? That's because it is more or less the premise of Harry Potter, a series that started being published seventeen years later but that I've consumed years before Shadowland (didn't read the novel, but seen the film adaptations). What I'm about to say is extremely unfair to Peter Straub, yet I suspect many people will feel the same way : I'm emotionally exhausted of caring for teenager sorcerers. That's what I mean when I say it didn't age well. Straub obviously had the idea first, but everything about Shadowland is so tame and conventional in hindsight : two outsider kids bond over bond over something cool, go on a life-altering journey together and (spoilers, I guess?) end up heartbroken, disillusioned, but slightly wiser. Shadowland (the place) and sorcery is what would've made it stand out, but it's unfortunately been the blueprint for zeitgeist defining material, so it doesn't.
I'll give credit where credit is due: the overarching metaphor of Shadowland is super smart and simple, and it kept me going for its 400something pages. Shadowland (the place) is a metaphor for adulthood: a place where people use deception and manipulate reality for their own personal gain. This is why Shadowland (the place) keeps "claiming" people in the novel. That is why Tom Flanagan and Del Nightingale go there in the first place. They are becoming young men and they're facing the world for what it really is for the first time. Most of their disorientation comes from magic (of course), but part comes from Coleman Collins' dishonesty putting them in tough spots. There's a lot of flare and illusions in Shadowland, but what I thought was interesting were the interactions between Tom, Del and the older magicians which revealed what was really going on.
I've heard many writers complaining about being pigeonholed in a genre and not being able to express their creativity to its full extent over the years. My experience with Shadowland is a good example of why it's not a good idea to suddenly jump to a whole other genre without warning. If I knew anything about Shadowland before reading it, I would've probably found an excuse to skip it. That's how much the jump from mystery/supernatural horror to fantasy inspires me. Shadowland is not bad, per se. I can't say it's poorly written, stupid or malicious. It's just not what I want from a Peter Straub novel. I have no qualms about authors experimenting and stepping out of their comfort zones, but this is going way overboard. This is proto-Harry Potter meets The Prestige. And I would've never, ever read something that sold itself as that. Peter Straub has many great novels. This is not one of it.