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The Hellfire Club by Peter Straub
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The Hellfire Club (original 1996; edition 1997)

by Peter Straub

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7351112,706 (3.48)24
Member:ChelleBearss
Title:The Hellfire Club
Authors:Peter Straub
Info:Ballantine Books (1997), Mass Market Paperback, 544 pages
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The Hellfire Club by Peter Straub (1996)

  1. 10
    The Ghost Orchid by Carol Goodman (ehines)
    ehines: Two mystery/fantasy books with a literary retreat playing a central role. Hellfire Club is the better of the two (and I can't help thinking HC partially inspired GO), but Ghost Orchid brings the focus more tightly onto the retreat, the literary personalities, and the patrons.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
Peter Straub's novel The Hellfire Club begins with a nightmare, and the opening chapters are filled with emerging conflicts and ominous portents. Then it abruptly turns a corner into headlong action, seasoned with garrulous psychopathy. There is one more major lift and drop to the roller coaster of the plot, but throughout it all the book combines features of the suspense thriller, literary fiction, and mystery genres. It's more than a whodunnit, since it's even a mystery as to what was done. Meanwhile, there's plenty of current "doing," with multiple murders, kidnapping, rape, arson, etc.

The protagonist Nora shares a name with the lead character of Ibsen's A Doll's House, and there is more than a little concern with gender roles in this book. Her husband Davey is a milktoast product of the decline of the Chancel line from his rapacious tycoon grandfather Lincoln through his domineering father Alden. As Nora enters a childless menopause, the domestic situation is fraught and freighted with secrets. The extra-familial monster who becomes her abuser and foe is redolent of an elaborately-repressed gender dysphoria.

When an intricate, twisted work of fiction like this one concerns itself with several novels in which different authors were deliberately communicating secrets, and when the chapter structure of The Hellfire Club itself mirrors one of these imagined texts, i.e. the "wildly successful" fantasy Night Journey by Hugo Driver, a reader can be forgiven for wondering whether The Hellfire Club itself contains a secret message of some kind. I'd like to reflect further on this possibility, but that means the remaining bulk of this review will need to fall under "spoiler" masking, so that I can freely discuss the details.

The first novel-within-the-novel to carry secrets is the work-in-progress manuscript by Nora's dipsomaniac mother-in-law Daisy Chancel. It is a roman à clef about the Chancel family, seeming to spare no sordid detail. Later, when it is revealed that Daisy was the true author of the two "posthumous Hugo Driver" novels, it becomes apparent that they were her vehicle to express the truth that she was forbidden to voice about Davey's parentage. In addition, Night Journey itself was the means for Hugo Driver to indicate the evidence of Lincoln Chancel's guilt in the death of the poet Katherine Mansfield, even while Chancel documented Driver's plagiarisms of Mansfield's work in Night Journey in order to keep Driver silent and cooperative.

In Daisy Chancel's books, the key to their message is built into the characters, and The Hellfire Club certainly has an abundance of interesting characters with intense, changing relationships among them. Although Daisy wrote her Night Journey sequels to put Davey in the role of the protagonist Pippin Little, The Hellfire Club shows that Nora, by dint of solving the puzzle in the original Night Journey, becomes the "real" Pippin Little. Other characters are correlated throughout: The Hellfire Club's Dick Dart to Night Journey's Lord Night, "Paddi Mann" to Paddy, Helen Day to the Cup Bearer, etc. But clearly Driver/Mansfield could not have been writing about some of these people some forty years earlier, and we lack in any case the full intricacies of Night Journey itself. Did Straub deploy these Hellfire Club characters in order to make statements about actual historical people? Nora must be a cipher for the "successful" reader, as Pippin Little was. But who are the Chancels? Dick Dart? Helen and the Deodatos? Perhaps these are not literary ciphers for actual people, but genuinely literary characters, as they appear to be.

Hugo Driver's code in Night Journey is not one of person, but place. He has incorporated the features of the Shorelands literary colony into Pippin Little's itinerary, which eventuates at the vault that is the office safe at Shorelands, containing Driver's signed testimony regarding the death of Katherine Mansfield. Nora's story starts in the imaginary town of Westerholm, Connecticut. While horror readers might at first fancy a new Arkham country here, it seems that the place is simply Westport, Connecticut, which has been Straub's home since 1979. Still, the reality of the place seems to be a first toehold to climb towards an actual secret.

Just as we first find Nora in Westerholm, her odyssey culminates at Shorelands, the primitive resort that had been a literary colony in the 1920s and 1930s. There is in fact a Shorelands resort with rustic cottages in New England. It is in southern Maine (indicated by a feint in the novel: Dick Dart plans to go to Maine, Nora persuades him to go to Shorelands "instead"). The closest town to the real Shorelands is Kennebunkport, the retreat of the accomplished and notorious Bush family. Could a Nazi-abetting Prescott Bush be Lincoln Chancel, and George H.W. Bush be Alden? The "Hellfire Club" so conspicuous in the title, but so puzzlingly marginal to the actual novel, would then be the Yale Skull and Bones Society, to which it clearly tips its hat in any case. The Hellfire Club was first published in 1995, shortly after the first Bush Presidency. Is Chancel House the White House? Er, I don't know that I even want to know, if so. It would probably make the Dart, Morris law firm into the CIA.


So, I can't imagine that Straub's genuine code, if there is one, would be susceptible of cracking on a single read anyhow. I'm not about to go in for an immediate re-read to emulate the "Driver fanatics" in the book. But I trust that if and when I get around to a second reading of this book, which has certainly earned one, my notes in this review will serve as breadcrumbs in the selva oscura, allowing my decryption to be picked up where I left it.
4 vote paradoxosalpha | Nov 16, 2015 |
The Basics

Nora lives in an upscale suburb where it just so happens a serial killer is on the loose. The latest disappearance of a woman who leaves a blood-drenched bedroom behind has Nora more embroiled in these killings than she ever wanted to be. And it makes her a new target.

My Thoughts

That’s a really bad attempt at “The Basics" up there. Because all that was definitely true. The book is about a woman named Nora who comes face-to-face with a serial killer who makes her life hell. It’s also a book about a book, a fantasy classic Straub invented purely for this tale called Night Journey. In the midst of everything that’s happening to her, Nora takes it upon herself to solve the mysteries behind Night Journey, which proves to be a really satisfying arc. It’s also about Nora and Davey’s failing marriage, the fault of which lies mostly upon Davey’s father. Are you seeing how long “The Basics" could’ve gotten?

Normally this would be the part where I say the book was too busy and didn’t focus enough. This all sounds like a lot for a novel to carry, and it is, but it does all of it so incredibly well. It’s dense and packed with so much information and character development and twists and turns to the point of being epic, but it never felt like the novel was losing itself. It’s a long story well worth investing time in.

It has a strong lead in Nora, who carries this story while surrounded and hounded by a plethora of men who don’t understand her and yet imagine they have her figured out. I love reading a male writer who can find it within himself to connect with a female the way Straub did with Nora. He was with her every step of the way, therefore the reader is, as well.

This was my second attempt at Straub, and I’m glad I didn’t write him off. The first book I’d tried to read by him left me feeling confused and unsatisfied, to the point that I didn’t finish it. I wonder now if I was too young and easily distracted to appreciate what Straub does. He creates an atmosphere, and he doesn’t worry about whether what you’re seeing entirely makes sense. He concerns himself with what he’s making you feel. In the case of The Hellfire Club, it’s dread. Dread permeates this book, rises from it like a vapor, so that you can’t ignore it. It gets in the back of your mind and stays there. I feel like I had a full experience here because I decided to trust him even when things got surreal, and after worrying I was going to have to wash my hands of Straub, I’m ready to tackle another.

Final Rating

5/5 ( )
2 vote Nickidemus | Sep 18, 2014 |
Really awesome book. I couldn't put it down. ( )
  LisaFoxRomance | Apr 6, 2014 |
I was very disipointed in this work. The story did not hold together at all and the writing was long winded and boring. I finally gave up and quit reading it half way through. I kept wanting to give it a chance as there were a few good pages, but i just couldn't finish. I will try another of his books because I really enjoyed Ghost Story. ( )
  lawn2000 | Feb 18, 2013 |
I've always enjoyed Peter Straub, starting from when I was a teen. Even though I'm not much for serial killers and such, The Hellfire Club kept me hooked and has one of the more frightening characters I've encountered. ( )
  bibifoc | Jul 22, 2011 |
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Book description
In The Hellfire Club, Peter Straub has not only created a villain as diabolical, clever and fascinating as Hannibal Lecter, but has also written his most gripping, concentrated and startling novel to date. At stake are the fates of both a loyal and courageous woman and a long-established publishing house. Nora Chancel, struggling to maintain her marriage, well-being, and independence, is unwillingly drawn into a treacherous double mystery: One of the strands involves a series of vicious murders; the other concerns an otherworldly novel so influential that its most ardent admirers literally give over their lives to it.
Nora and her husband, Davey, the neglected scion of the publishing family that gave the world Hugo Driver’s fantastic novel Night Journey, live in Westerholm, an affluent Connecticut town that has attracted national attention as the site of four recent murders, whose victims were all successful divorced or widowed women. When the Chancels visit the local police station to identify an acquaintance thought to be the killer’s fifth victim, Nora is implicated in the crime; but in a sudden reversal, she is kidnapped at gunpoint by the actual murderer, the menacing and debonair Dick Dart.
Over the next few days a series of stolen cars all but give themselves to Dart, as if to help him outwit the state police in pursuit of the killer and his hostage, and Nora can save her life only by feeding Dart’s ego. Without seeming to do so, she must delude this extraordinarily intuitive and resourceful monster by pretending to assist him in his newest scheme – protecting Hugo Driver’s literary reputation by means of several more murders. During this ordeal, Nora grows in stature and courage, and by the denouement, having confronted the dark secrets of both Night Journey and her own life, she has captured the reader’s heart.

Haiku summary

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0345415000, Mass Market Paperback)

Straub's recent series of books, while excellent, have been dense and rather cerebral as horror books go. This one, while employing many of the same devices about family secrets and mysteries half-buried in the past, has an action storyline with a viscerally satisfying villain and a strong female protagonist. The premise is that the history of a famous fantasy novel not only concerns some eccentric authors, but collides with a wily killer on a rampage. The settings--in seedy motel rooms, New England houses, a bizarre private club and an over-the-hill literary retreat--are especially fun.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:30 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

In Connecticut, a publisher's wife is taken hostage by a suspected killer making a getaway. The man, Dick Dart, was arrested as a suspect in the knifing death of four divorcees in their bedroom. He is intuitive and clever and Nora Chancel, who previously led the life of a bored housewife, can only stay alive by feeding his ego and outwitting him without seeming to do so. Over the next 10 days she grows in stature and courage. By the author of Ghost Story.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

» see all 3 descriptions

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