Peter Straub’s novels (Ghost Story, Koko, The Throat, If You Could See Me Now) feel terrifyingly plausible till they’re over; then they seem preposterous. Nobody else working the horror-and-suspense field — not even Stephen King — concocts anything remotely resembling the audacious, labyrinthine plots that Straub serves up year after year. He’s a puzzle maker as much as he is a storyteller, and if his narratives are often as unwieldy, baroque, and zany as a Rube Goldberg contraption, they’re also unique. Yes, and as maddening to synopsize as the federal budget. The Hellfire Club begins with a familiar, tired premise — a serial killer is on the loose — in the swank Connecticut town of Westerholm. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, he’s captured during a botched assault on an elderly woman. The murderer turns out to be a sardonic thirtysomething lawyer named Dick Dart, who takes enormous glee in taunting everyone he meets, including Nora Chancel, the unhappily married 49-year-old housewife he takes hostage and uses to effect his getaway from the police station.
This may all seem straightforward enough until you realize that Nora was in custody herself, waiting to be charged with abducting her husband’s mistress and keeping her prisoner in a boarded-up day-care center. Nora, of course, is innocent. Or maybe not. A woman who wakes up screaming almost every night (she is haunted by her experiences as a field nurse in Vietnam) and who is visited by tiny winged demons and has long, soulful conversations with her dead father — well, you can understand how the cops could think her capable of kidnapping.
A nutso killer on the lam throughout New England with an eccentric, possibly psychotic hostage might be enough of a story for most thriller writers, but not for Peter Straub. Oh, no. As usual, he undermines all our expectations, piles on the coincidences, and veers off in berserk new directions. Turns out, Dick Dart — like millions of other people around the world — is a huge devotee of a fictitious children’s fantasy novel called Night Journey, published more than 50 years ago. Turns out, Nora’s husband is the grandson of the original publisher. Turns out, Night Journey may have been plagiarized and the real author murdered at a Massachusetts writers’ colony called Shorelands in the summer of 1938.
Dick Dart, who is just as quixotic as he is monstrous, wants to protect the reputation of Journey’s putative author, Hugo Driver. Nora Chancel, however, wants to prove that her wimpy husband’s patrician family is a no-good pack of literary bandits. Together, and with the police and the FBI in hot pursuit, they head north in one stolen car after another, piecing together clues to a half-century-old enigma. Turns out, The Hellfire Club isn’t really a chase novel, after all; it’s a big, lush, dizzyingly complicated murder mystery with a homicidal maniac and his crafty hostage playing the roles of private detectives. (Remember Nick and Nora from Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man? Here are Dick and Nora.)
By the time this mad melee sorts itself out and reaches its grisly climax at a spooky old mansion deep in the woods (during a thunderstorm, natch), you realize that you’ve been suckered into a completely improbable sequence of events and a cast of artificial characters. But the craziest thing of all is you don’t care. You’ve been royally entertained, you’ve gotten your money’s worth, you’ve been taken for a good long giddy ride by one of America’s most idiosyncratic imaginations. Besides, as Nora’s husband says at one point, ”It’s a fantasy novel — what do you want, realism?”