“The Hellfire Club,” by Peter Straub

It looked like a horror novel.

It really did. Peter Straub’s name in big, bold letters, was the most dominant feature on the cover. A pair of hell-blazing eyes peered at me from beneath the author’s name. “The Hellfire Club” title evoked decadence and bad cultish behavior.

I had been haunting the local used-book store, and because I was in a mood for something supernatural, I had wandered into the horror section. I had not read Straub in quite some time, so this book caught my eye.

Well, it was not a novel of supernatural horror, although the plot does surround the history of such a novel and the scions of the publishing house that unleashed it on the world. And some of the crimes are quite horrific. But nothing supernatural ever really occurs.

This is a crime novel, in which a woman named Nora finds herself embroiled in the mysteries surrounding a cult-favorite novel called  “Night Journey,” by the enigmatic Hugo Driver. Nora also ends up as captive to a serial rapist and killer named Dick Dart who has connections to the whole “Night Journey” thing. The titular Hellfire Club plays only a very minor role in the entire affair.

Although I was disappointed as it slowly dawned on me that this book would produce no ghosts or other undead, it worked fairly well as a crime novel. I would disagree with Stephen King, whose cover blurb announced that “The Hellfire Club moves like an express train.”  It did mostly move at a pretty good clip, but that train made the occasional stop at a station so people could talk a bit too much about Hugo Driver’s damned book. When the plot moved, though, it was pretty good.

A few knocks: The book features a couple of vividly described rapes, the key villain in the piece is harder to kill than Conan of Cimmeria and there are moments when people stay right where they are even when they are pretty damned sure Dick Dart is coming. I found myself at several points mentally screaming, “Run, you idiot!”

Still, Straub’s prose is solid, his characters are engaging and the plot is nicely serpentine. Overall, I enjoyed it.

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