BOOK REVIEW: Peter Straub’s “Koko”

“I have work to do.”

-Peter Straub, Koko

Peter Straub is one of very few horror authors out there who has amassed a level of popularity almost (but not quite) on the level of Stephen King. If King is #1 and Clive Barker is #2, then Peter Straub would be that distant third, popular with genre readers but generally unknown to most people outside of that sphere.

It probably doesn’t hurt that Straub has this odd sort of bro-mance thing going on with King, either (they’ve collaborated and given talks together on numerous occasions). King connections or no, however, Straub has written books like Ghost Story; Lost Boy, Lost Girl; and A Dark Matter. He is quite prolific, and it’d be safe to say that he’s one of the biggest voices in the genre today.

But with one of his most acclaimed works, Koko (1988), Straub delves into what is essentially more of a thriller than a straight horror story–a sort of murder-mystery, to be more precise.

Koko’s story is deceptively simple, following a group of Vietnam veterans on the hunt for a serial killer who’s been targeting people related to the war. The surviving members of a disgraced platoon–doctor Michael Poole, attorney Harry Beevers, restaurant mogul Tina Pumo, and down-on-his luck construction worker Conor Linklater–reunite after a visit to the Vietman Memorial in Washington during a memorial ceremony.

Harry Beevers–a royal douche bag, to say the very least–informs the group about the Koko killings and convinces them to go looking for the murderer themselves, hoping to bring him in and get rich–film rights, book deals, the whole shebang. To say that things snowball from there would be an understatement.

Their chief suspect is one of their former platoon members, Tim Underhill, who became an author after the war and did not attend the memorial ceremony. The Koko killings resemble Underhill’s fiction work and the killer has been using his name around the globe, so he’s an easy target.

[INTERJECTION/SPOILER: I will admit that Underhill’s inclusion in the story kind of ruined things for me–I had read Lost Boy, Lost Girl before I read Koko. Lost Boy, Lost Girl was published years after Koko, and there was no indication anywhere that the two stories were linked–they did not even share a genre; one was a supernatural horror story, the other a serial killer story.

Let me just tell you to be careful about reading Straub novels out of order, even if you’re not dealing with direct sequels. His works are interconnected much like Stephen King’s works, but where King mostly just drops little Easter eggs here and there, Straub apparently thought it prudent to use Koko‘s first chief murder suspect as an obviously benevolent protagonist in Lost Boy, Lost Girl.

This soured my enjoyment of the book quite a bit, and though it isn’t the fault of Koko as a novel, it’s certainly the fault of Straub as an author. I wouldn’t think it’s fair to say that it was the fault of me as a reader given the loose or non-existent connection between the novels other than Underhill’s presence, but I would say that, wouldn’t I? I’ll let you draw your own conclusion.  INTERJECTION/SPOILER OVER.]

Like all of Straub’s work, Koko is highly and vividly descriptive, which is one of the book’s biggest strengths but is at times a detriment. Straub’s descriptive abilities are mostly excellent, but he tends to fall into ramblings fairly constantly, ramblings that distract from the story and feel of the novel rather than enrich them. In other words, yes, I’m saying he overwrites. Authors hate that criticism, but I for one think it’s a valid one. Koko could be 100 pages shorter than it is and the plot wouldn’t miss a beat or lose its atmosphere. It’s a fairly thick book because it wants to be, not because it needs to be (the story, though interesting, isn’t very complex).

The characters are probably the best thing about the book. You like who you are meant to like and hate who you are meant to hate–Straub has failed at this in the past (I’m looking at you, A Dark Matter) but he outdoes himself in Koko. Every character is interesting and relatable in different ways than the next, even the unlikeable ones like Beevers and even Koko himself.

Maggie Lah, both Pumo and Poole’s lover in the story, is a standout. She is fairly Mary Sue-ish (but not to the extent of Eel in A Dark Matter–maybe I should have reviewed that damn book instead!) in the way virtually every single character in the novel sees her as the most perfect woman to ever walk the Earth, but she succeeds in being strong and independent in a realistic way, for the most part. I’m conflicted about how other characters react to her; she is fetishized, in a way, but she’s also an empowering figure.

Koko himself is also very interesting, even if his background is rather cliché, but I cannot go too far into that without massively spoiling the book. The book has several chapters from his point of view. He’s delusional, to put it mildly, and his chapters are completely, bat-shit insane, full of inner logic that could make sense only to the devil himself and gruesome, at times allegorical imagery. I can appreciate them–especially given what a far cry they are from the “normal” chapters–but some of them do go on too long, and I tended to fade out after some of the longer ones. That said, whenever Koko appears in other characters’ chapters, he’s an effective, chilling villain.

The book’s ending, in my opinion, is when the story kind of falls apart. Straub leaves plot threads (including a certain divorce and the fate of a certain douche bag, to mention two of them) dangling and at time wraps them up hastily, and the conclusion to the Koko murders is undeniably weak. The book seems to be trying to portray its story as a slice of real life: an ongoing, unresolved misery. But as the rest of the book is hardly structured this way, the ending left me unfulfilled–although I would assume some readers.

Straub is very proud of Koko, and in some ways that pride is definitely merited. However, as much as Koko made me eagerly want to get from one page to the next, it also made me wonder why I was still reading it. It’s a very bipolar book in that way, with a lot of unnecessary fluff to it.

Koko gets a 3.0 out of 5.0. Despite my reservations, it’s decent, slightly above average.

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