October 25, 2013 by Laird
In honor of a recent visit with Peter Straub, here is an afterword I wrote for the Centipede Press special addition of Koko.
Koko: Stalking Through the Jungles of Night
By Laird Barron
Peter Straub’s epic Koko is an astonishing account of a descent into lunacy and depravity. A black odyssey on par with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it is a classic of horror literature and one of the greatest treatments of the serial killer genre. The narrative unfolds like a peculiarly lucid nightmare: the journey to find the murderous Koko, a specter of their past, carries four war veterans from the hard shine of New York to the lush jungles of Asia, and in a real sense, the lower regions of Hell. Straub was well along the path to fame with previous novels, but this is the one that cemented his name in American letters.
Koko originally appeared in 1988, thirteen years after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. A literary thriller with a sublime undercurrent of the occult, it arrived at a moment of American history when our society was slowly gaining a measure of circumspection regarding the war and those who were called to arms. A fascinating and important book in its own right, the experience of Koko is enriched if one considers its context and alignment within Straub’s body of work.
The first movement of Straub’s writing career is characterized by big, sprawling novels: Ghost Story, Shadowland, and Floating Dragon, and any discussion of Koko is a discussion of these foundational novels. Ghost Story, in retrospect, the most obvious signal of his intensifying fascination with themes of violence and corruption, and a clear analogue to Koko, follows a small fraternity of men cursed by a misdeed from their collective history, and a sinister figure who has returned to exact revenge decades in the making. The protagonists are individuals who bear hidden scars and carry secret, unimaginable burdens. The transformative moment in Ghost Storyrelies not so much upon the shocking revelation of the accidental killing of Eva Galli, a demon in human form, by the members of the Chowder Society, but rather the psychological violation this creature inflicts upon these right and proper souls with its hatefully wanton attack in the parlor. This detail is important because that profoundly affecting moment of despoliation is echoed, albeit under wildly different circumstances, in Koko when the characters and their platoon endure a horrifically nebulous ordeal while serving in Vietnam. Both instances are the prime movers that set dominos tumbling, and in both novels, our heroes are altered forever.
Thus is demonstrated a recurring theme central to Straub’s canon: innocence seared away, the shattering of the naïve world view of callow youth, the dread of a fate worse than death. He examines time and again the seepage of evil, supernatural and otherwise, into previously blameless lives, and how this defilement is often abetted by the complicity of the victims themselves. He pries at the phenomena of dogged camaraderie and the notion men in groups reinforce the best, and worst, qualities of one another. Perhaps most chillingly, he reminds us that for all our friends, we each die alone.
Koko, revisits the formative ideas of Ghost Story, and amplifies and refines them. Straub again presents us with an association of old comrades assembled to confront an unspeakable nemesis, and the dark act that may have spawned him. Koko, however, demonstrates a pronounced shift in Straub’s methods, a coalescence of tropes and techniques into something more muscular, more stylistically compact. His focus sharpens like a laser. Koko is an ambitious work, the opening shot in the second movement of his career arc. The motifs of brotherhood and honor, duty and dereliction, and the reduction of that great national tragedy of the Vietnam War to an intimate scale, imbue the novel with power and resonance. There are no demons here. Straub isn’t preoccupied with the intrusion of supernatural forces, but rather the darkness existent in the human heart, the excruciating banality of true evil. There is no insulation from this brand of evil, the effects of which we routinely witness in the news and on the streets, and like as not try to seal away by locking a door or changing the channel. Koko doesn’t flinch from these truths, and it doesn’t let the reader off the hook with a cardboard monster.
The novel is stylistically impressive. Straub plays his notes like a jazz pianist — tie loose, scotch close to one elbow, hands rambling across the keyboard. He excels at the slow burn, the relentless accretion of minor details that lead us through dark and winding valleys unto the ultimate, and inevitable, revelation. Much like his contemporary, T.E.D. Klein, another American master of the cerebral and elegantly understated horror story, Straub immerses the reader in a world as grounded as our own. He employs the prosaic, ubiquitous elements of everyday life to establish verisimilitude.
The cast of Koko exemplifies a naturalistic approach. His characters are not action stars, or superhuman sleuths. The portraits of Michael Poole, Harry Beevers, Conor Linklater, and Tina Pumo, are harrowing in the depiction of the acute nature of their suffering. These characters are damaged goods; men isolated by terrible war experiences. Their social estrangement is exacerbated by the bond they share as former soldiers who’ve been through the fire; a bond that sets them apart from regular society and chains them to a dark and bloody past. The emotional fallout is rendered all the more striking by Straub’s surgically precise exposition. The coldness of the world, cultural apathy, and institutional violence are conveyed with ruthless simplicity, a spare, yet elegant recitation of fact.
Of course, lurking in the background is the fifth man, the lunatic stalker who serves as the living shadow of them all. Straub’s titular villain remains the axis upon which the novel depends, and a singular achievement rivaling McCarthy’s Judge Holden and Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter. Maniacal and savage in pursuit of his ends, yet perversely melancholic and dutiful, Koko embodies the tragic dichotomy of a civilized people called upon to let blood in the name of peace, and the razor wire that divides love and hate, memory and loss. He is the wormy heart beating in the darkness, the distillation of every pent fear, every murmured recrimination, and every guilty conscience. Koko is the ghost who has haunted our society for three and a half decades.
April 20, 2009 Olympia, WA