One of the most inexplicable recent items to appear on bookstore shelves was Pegasus Books’ February, 2012 edition of Peter Straub’s novella MRS. GOD. This publication is odd because a). MRS. GOD is over 20 years old, b). it already saw print as part of the collection HOUSES WITHOUT DOORS in 1990 and as a limited edition hardcover from Donald M. Grant that same year, c). there exist at least two other Straub novellas (BLUE ROSE and THE GENERAL’S WIFE) that are in my view far more deserving of new editions, and d). this latest reprint is the HOUSES WITHOUT DOORS version, which is inferior to the expanded Donald M. Grant edition of MRS. GOD.
Peter Straub is of course one of the most literate and daring of all modern horror scribes. He tends to write big, galumphing bestsellers not unlike those of his longtime pal Stephen King, but laced with narrative convolutions that place Straub far beyond most of his contemporaries (and are the likely reason so little of Straub’s fiction has been adapted to the screen). Then there are his shorter, even more idiosyncratic works, of which MRS. GOD is a prime example.
Straub was admittedly under the spell of the late Robert Aickman, having penned an introduction to the latter’s retrospective 1988 collection THE WINE DARK SEA. Aickman, for those who don’t know, favored psychologically-based reveries whose horrors tended to emanate directly from the subconscious. Aickman is invoked in Straub’s introduction to the aforementioned GENERAL’S WIFE, which also saw print as a limited edition hardcover by Donald M. Grant. Published in 1982, it is in many respects a forerunner to MRS. GOD, being the account of a young American woman in London who enters the sphere of a retired general, and becomes caught up in a swirl of apprehension and dark eroticism.
MRS. GOD’S protagonist is William Standish, an American university professor who likewise finds himself afoot in London. His aim is to study the poetry of his grandfather’s late wife in a secluded country house. Weirdness becomes apparent immediately when Standish gets lost on his way to the cottage. He enters a pub run by a supremely apathetic barman who hustles Standish out before he’s even begun to eat the lunch he ordered. Upon reaching his destination Standish is beset by horrific and erotic hallucinations that grow increasingly malignant until he snaps entirely, and in the final pages undergoes a most unexpected metamorphosis.
As with Robert Aickman’s fiction, nothing in MRS. GOD is ever “explained” (is the country house haunted or is the protagonist just crazy–or both?). That’s particularly true of the Donald M. Grant edition, which according to Straub represents his original intent: “an enigmatic, bizarre, dream-like experience in which most of the usual narrative signposts and road maps are inaccurate, concealed, or missing altogether.”
The HOUSES WITHOUT DOORS/Pegasus version of MRS. GOD, aside from being quite a bit shorter than the other, has been toned down and cleaned up. The language is more concise, with (for instance) the line “His first thought was that he was going to have to look at more photographs of lumpy literary people proclaiming in their bodily attitudes their superiority to all about them” changed to “Standish bent down to pick up a random handful, assuming he would see more photographs of lumpy literary people” (with his second thought excised altogether). An explanation of sorts is even offered in the redrafted opening pages, which in the Grant version made enigmatic reference to “the loss of a certain THING better lost” but in the cleaned-up version reads “a THING never to be regarded as human but lost indeed, most powerfully and irrevocably lost, wrapped in the bloodied sheets and discarded, burnt or flushed away into psychic oblivion.” An aborted fetus, in other words, the knowledge of which makes Standish’s subsequent visions and the object of his final transformation a bit easier to comprehend. I guess this is a good thing, but the tale is so inherently weird that the placement of signposts (however obscured) actually renders it less satisfying.
For me MRS. GOD works best as the wild and unfettered mind-boggler presented in the Donald E. Grant hardcover. As such it’s far from perfect, and most definitely NOT an easy read, but it does have a wooly charm that’s lacking in its other, more easily digestible incarnation.