Picks and Pans Review: Houses Without Doors

updated 01/14/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/14/1991 01:00AM

by Peter Straub

Stories Without Purpose is more like it. Straub has forgotten a crucial tenet of the horror game: No matter how loathsome, no matter how unspeakably evil are the creatures that people one's pages, they must be balanced by the forces of good. The reader needs someone to root for, an ordinary person struggling against circumstances beyond his control. Following this simple rule is what keeps Stephen King and Dean Koontz at the top of the best-seller lists, while violating it is what relegates Straub to a distant third in this genre.

More's the pity, because, of the three, Straub may be the most accomplished writer. His prose shows range and versatility: he's capable of irony and subtlety and rarely stoops to garden-variety guts and gore.

This collection consists of six cheerless tales. Sandwiched between the stories are a series of curious, enigmatic and. finally, irritating narrative fragments—or Interludes, as Straub labels them—that have no connection with the stories, nor any apparent relation to each other.

Straub's characters are misfits, outcasts who are so vile or just plain unlikable that they are incapable of generating any sympathy. It is hard to pick a favorite among the stories, but perhaps "A Short Guide to the City." a wry Baedeker to an unnamed mid-western town, qualifies because it contains no characters at all. Then there's "Something About a Death, Something About a Fire." Great title; indecipherable story—something about a taxi.

The most intriguing tale is the final one, "Mrs. God," in which an English professor at a second-rate midwestern college wins a fellowship to study at a literary retreat in England called Esswood. With casually dropped hints, Straub builds a menacing aura of mystery about this bargain-basement Bloomsbury. By the time the professor figures out the secret of Esswood, he is on a headlong descent into madness.

Taken from an Emily Dickinson poem, the title of this collection refers to the characters who are trapped in horrible situations from which there is no escape. Unsuspecting readers of Houses Without Doors may feel the same way. (Dutton, $19.95)

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