Sunday, January 18, 2015

Lana Reviews: Julia - Peter Straub

First time I came across Peter Straub - that I knew of - was during a Stephen King spree I had some years back, which eventually led me to read The Talisman and Black House, two The Dark Tower-related novels that he and King wrote together. Only in November last year, did I realize that a horror movie I had watched at the tender age of 11-ish was in fact based on another of his books, Julia. What exactly made me look the movie up that random evening in November, I do not remember anymore, but I know I had exactly two clues to go on; Mia Farrow was in it, and it was about a creepy evil ghost girl. When I subsequently discovered that the movie was based on one of Straub's earlier novels, I knew I'd rather want to read that, than look at the movie again. So I hinted at this before Christmas, and soon after, it was to be one of the presents resting under the Christmas tree.

After the death of her young daughter during a tracheotomy gone wrong, Julia Lofting - trying hard to break out of her old life and the memories it holds - leaves her husband and old home behind, and starts looking for a new place to live. The first house she is shown, seems to beckon to her, and what's more, she glimpses a young girl about her daughter's age, and with the same color hair, roaming about in the neighborhood. After that first visit at Twenty-five Ilchester Place she never goes to look at any of the other places for rent or for sale, - she knows that this large, old-fashioned house in Kensington, London was meant for her, and impulsively makes the purchase.

What seemingly starts out as a positive change and a new clean start for Julia, however, soon turns bitter, as she realizes that the past will not stay in the past. Not only will her husband not leave her be, but something in the house wants her there, needs her to be there, but also hates her, half egging her on to figure out its secrets, half discouraging her from finding out anything by threatening her with death. But Julia won't stop her search into the past. And as she struggles to figure out exactly what happened at Twenty-five Ilchester Place and its near surroundings 24 years earlier, Julia herself falls apart, slowly descending into the darkness of her damaged psyche.

Julia is a haunted house story. Or is it, really? Straub has put it together in such a clever way that one frequently wonders what exactly is going on. From the first page of the story, it is obvious that something isn't quite right with Julia. And throughout the novel, the reader can never be sure if what Julia experiences is real, or whether it's just whatever is wrong with her making her perceive things in a way a person without her mental baggage wouldn't, making her one of the most unreliable narrators I've ever come across. Several times, it is hinted at that some of the things she thinks the ghost did, were in fact done by the people in her life: her husband, his sister, and their adoptive brother. Then again, a few bits of the story is told from these other peoples' points of view, and some of the things they see and experience do indeed match the things Julia herself has seen and felt, making it even harder to figure out what exactly is happening in this novel.

Threatening ghost or not, Julia works hard at solving the riddle of Twenty-five Ilchester Place, and whether or not it was just chance leading her to this old house in Kensington, it turns out that there is a connection of sorts between her and the house. Her hunt for clues, and her slow unearthing of events in the past, lends the novel an air of mystery - and it's a pretty good one at that. But Julia soon looses herself in a really bad way during her search, and doesn't seem to realize or care that what she is doing is slowly destroying her. While she claims several times that she doesn't want to die, all her actions point toward a wish for self-destruction, whether the character herself is aware of it or not. Had she really wanted to break with her old life, for example, she could have moved back to her country of birth and started anew over there, - she certainly had the means to do so. Instead she chose to live in a place where her 'family' could continue to use, abuse and manipulate her.

In a way, Julia is very much a product of the life she chose for herself and the people she chose to have in her life, all poor choices in my opinion. Her husband, Magnus, does not come off as a very sympathetic man. He needs to be in control of every aspect of his life, it seems, including the people in it. As such, he does not take it well when Julia decides to leave and live alone. Apparently, his personality and habits match those of Julia's father, down to how they both had plenty of mistresses and thought this to be only fair. (If Julia had taken a lover, however, there might have been murder.) Magnus' sister Lily comes off as more sympathetic than her brother, but she is manipulative in her own way, and has her own agenda when it comes to Julia. I'm not entirely sure what was going on with Mark, their adopted brother, but he seemed to be having mental issues of his own, making his bits of the story as unreliable as Julia's. Continuing to allow these people to be a part of her life (or be close enough to force their way into it, in her husband's case) is as self-destructive as the hunt Julia cannot abandon.

Julia is not a very complicated book to read, not at first sight, but as it turns out once you sit down and think about it, it has layers and layers of things happening where nothing is what it seems, and where everything can be questioned or looked at from at least two sides. Which in turn makes me wonder whether I've ignored some big things I should have talked about here, in favor of driveling on about the things I thought were interesting, or strange, or worthy of notice and so on. Basically though, it is a chilling story, and if you want laughs and giggles, this is not the right book for you. I have read better ghost stories, and I have read worse, but if you like novels where you have to figure out for yourself what is happening, and don't mind still not being quite sure as you turn the last page, I really do recommend this book as it's pretty clever like that.

Book Details
Title: Julia
Author: Peter Straub
Publisher: Anchor Books
Pages: 291
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-8041-7283-7
First published: 1975

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