One of the drawbacks of being an avid reader is that I sometimes don’t retain much of a book in my head. I might remember specific scenes or characters. I might not remember the entire book, but I do remember if I liked the book or hated it.
I read Peter Staub’s The Hellfire Club over 20 years ago. I had already read the two books he collaborated on with Stephen King: The Talisman and it’s follow up Black House. Already a King reader, those two books urged me to seek out more Peter Straub books. And I did, starting with The Hellfire Club.
Nora Chancel is married to Davey Chancel, the son of a man whose father built a publishing house in the early 1900s. Nora, a former combat nurse in Vietnam, is haunted by her service in the war. Her sleep is often broken by nightmares that send her digging under her pillow for a gun she used to keep there.
Someone is murdering women in the small Connecticut town where Nora and Davey live. The killer’s latest victim is the real estate agent who sold the Chancels their home. Like many women in town terrified of being the next victim, Nora has had an alarm system put in.
Meanwhile, her husband, who has always been obsessed with an author published by his family’s publishing house, seems to have become almost unhinged in his obsession. His father is a blowhard who likes to keep Davey under his thumb. Davey’s mother is a more often than not drunk who spends her days in her study ‘writing.’ Davey’s father has always thought that Nora (10 years older than Davey) was too old for his son and likes to insult her under the guise of flirting.
One day on the drive home from a tense lunch with Davey’s parents, he and Nora drive by their real estate agent’s house. Crime scene tape still scars the front door. Police roam the house. Davey and Nora go to the front door where they’re met by a detective who asks them to come inside since they knew the missing woman and might have answers to his questions. He observes them as they walk through the house.
The woman’s bedroom is a blood bath, blood spatter on the walls, the bed soaked. Nora doesn’t think the real estate agent is dead, but with all the blood in her bedroom it’d be a miracle if the woman was alive. When they get home, Nora sees that Davey is almost manic about something. He stole a couple of paperbacks from the real estate agent’s bedroom, books published by his family and written by the author Davey is obsessed with. He begins to tell her a bizarre story about a woman from his past who was equally obsessed with the writer. She introduced him to The Hellfire Club, an unusual place where time and memory seem to be skewed.
He gives Nora a couple of paperbacks with a scribbled message inside. The same paperbacks the missing and presumed dead real estate agent had on her shelf in her bedroom. But it turns out that Nora was right, the woman is not dead and has been found. The police want Nora and Davey to positively ID the woman.
It is indeed the real estate agent, but she explodes into hysterics when she sees Nora. The killer is caught: a man identified as one of Davey’s former classmates as well as a lawyer for the publishing house. And this is where Nora’s nightmare begins as she becomes accused of heinous crimes and tries to outrun a killer who is actually on the loose.
Peter Straub is a master storyteller, weaving tales both supernatural and steeped in reality. The Hellfire Club is a fast page-turner and if my heart wasn’t a shriveled up black lotus flower, I’m sure it would have been pounding in terror.