The Process (is a Process All its Own)
by Peter Straub
Cover Artist: Michael Fusco Straub
Review by Mario Guslandi
Subterranean Press Deluxe Hardcover Editon ISBN/ITEM#: 978159606835
Date: 31 July 2017
This novella by Peter Straub is actually the expanded version of the short story by the same title which originally appeared in Conjunctions: 67 Other Aliens in 2016. It was subsequently reprinted in Ellen Datlow's The Best Horror of the Year, vol. 9 (July 2017).
At any rate, it is a truly amazing piece of fiction, portraying a weird serial killer, aptly called "the Ladykiller", a character which had already appeared in some of Straub's previous work ("The Skylark", "A Special Place"), whose disreputable activities in the Midwest during the '50s are the object of the present book.
The guy, needless to say, is endowed with an odd personality but also with a very unusual ability, that of feeling "the smell" of words. Indeed every word and sentence people pronounce evoke in the killer the immediate olfactory feeling of food or flowers or objects, sometimes pleasant, sometimes disgusting. This unique experience reaches is acme during the brief encounter with his new victim, a young girl that he manages to lure to a deceivingly sentimental rendezvous, which in reality is just a setup for a further, violent murder followed by the usual sexual abuse of the corpse.
The conclusion, alas, is exactly what the Ladykiller had planned, despite the brave and defiant behavior of the victim, who quite unexpectedly will gain the respect of the murderer. Straub here is at his very best, providing an extraordinary characterization of the murderer and his oddities, especially his olfactory sensitivity to the power of words.
Compared with the original short story the novella includes a series of little episodes depicting the Ladykiller's family (in particular his brother and his sister-in-law) and hence emphasizing the apparent normality of the man's everyday life, plus a short report concerning his former Chinese wife, now defunct. Enjoyable as they may be, these extras add very little, in my opinion, to the core plot. The same applies to the attempt of introducing here and there some supernatural elements (such as dead people reappearing), let alone a few anecdotes concerning the author Henry James.
Maybe because I'm a confirmed short story lover, I think that the original tale stood strong by itself, with no need to be augmented by further material. Nevertheless, readers approaching the final novella directly will certainly appreciate this very disturbing and enticing work of dark fiction.