“Lost Boy Lost Girl”, by Peter Straub, is based primarily in the hometown of the protagonist, Timothy Underhill. It is a mid-western city by the name of “Millhaven” in Illinois. Some believe that the town is based loosely on Straub’s hometown of Milwaukee. The chief setting of the novel is an abandoned house on 3323 North Michigan Street, a custom built house with secret passageways, staircases, a torture chamber and chutes for corpses.
The locale of a small town, along with the eerie “murder house” is perfectly appropriate for the story. To Tim Underhill, it appears “surreal”. This lends to the tale a sort of gothic and intimidating feel. Had the story been set in some other place, it would have lacked the forbidding atmosphere that Millhaven imparts. The author, Peter Straub does a commendable job of representing and defining the settings, so as to give the readers an authentic sense of the place.
b. Major characters:
Two of the major characters of the novel are Timothy Underhill and Mark Underhill.
1. Tim Underhill: Tim Underhill is the protagonist of the story and narrates a major portion of it. A writer living in New York, he seldom returns to his hometown of Millhaven and is not very close to his brother, Phillip. In fact, Tim and Phillip share a sort of strained relationship. Tim appears a serious fellow, although there are instances wherein he chooses to possess a sense of humor. He quips, “Once you take someone’s word about an invisible man, you are playing with his racquet on his court, and it is no use pretending otherwise” (p. 142).
Perhaps the most prominent and apparent aspect of Tim Underhill’s character is his love for his nephew, Mark. He refuses to relinquish his quest for the boy and investigates the murders occurring in the town, resolving to get to the bottom of things. This is clearly induced by his affection for Mark, of course combined with his pursuit for the truth. Like many other small-town folk, Tim is a man who would not easily forgo his morals or principles. When faced with a decision, he will always take the one which is morally right, as for example, his decision to stay back in Millhaven upon his nephew’s disappearance and his perseverance in trying to find him.
At the climax of the novel, we can see that Tim Underhill’s character has changed a good deal. His relationship with his brother, his thoughts and his beliefs has been altered considerably.
2. Mark Underhill: Mark Underhill is the son of Phillip and Nancy Underhill. Fifteen years of age, he is “…restless; unfocussed; afflicted with.. a budding arrogance” (p. 5). His behavior, sense of dressing and language (judging especially from the emails he sends to Tim) are all illustrative of him being an average teenage boy. He becomes obsessed with a house in their neighborhood and suddenly disappears one day. He has, in Tim’s opinion “a good and tender heart”. He is sensitive to other’s feelings and we can sometimes observe that he is slightly smarter than the other characters. The account of Mark’s mother’s funeral, through his eyes, portrays vividly his affection for her and his anguish at her death.
Towards the end, however, we see a more mature Mark. One who has undergone a transformation of sorts. He emerges stronger and more prudent than he was before the whole ordeal.
c. Horror Fiction Formula:
“Lost Boy Lost Girl” remains quite true to the “horror fiction formula” throughout. The small town of Millhaven, with its simple and innocent inhabitants forms the perfect setting for the novel. The townsfolk are orderly and peaceable. Their lives, however are disrupted by a “monster” that seems to be dwelling in a house in their neighborhood. The monster is believed to be a pedophile and a serial killer who is kidnapping young boys. A spirit, one of a little girl, also inhabits this said house. Straub has very astutely merged the human with the supernatural to give the whole story an eerie and disturbing feel. The townsfolk, Tim and Phillip Underhill in particular, embark on finding this crazed kidnapper and killer. Although the monster is dealt with in the end, the lives and convictions of the people of the town are altered forever.
That being said, there are portions of the story that are not entirely associated with the “horror fiction formula”. The transformation of the spirit of the girl into a “good spirit”, the depiction of dysfunctional families such as that of the Underhills and the transition of a boy into a man are some of the aspects that Straub deals with that do not essentially comply with a horror novel’s customary description.
d. Levels of Horror:
Terror: Following the disappearance of Mark Underhill and other adolescent boys, the reader is made aware of the fact that a terror lurks in the darkness, but it can only be sensed, not seen. Straub has done a remarkable job of keeping the reader intrigued by keeping the identity of the “monster” under wraps. The level of terror is, however, not sustained. The “monster” is revealed to the audience later on in the story.
Horror: Towards the second half of the book, the reader becomes conscious of the form of terror(s), that is, the little girl’s spirit and the serial killer. Once they are disclosed, the novel takes on the level of horror. The killer and the spirit are described in detail for the reader’s benefit.
Revulsion: Straub chooses to scare his readers psychologically rather than with the spilling of blood and guts. Nevertheless, the novel contains various illustrations of repulsive and horrific events of graphic nature. For instance, the scene of Nancy Underhill lying dead and nude in the bathtub, with her wrists slit and a plastic bag over her head is sure to make the reader wince. Furthermore, the character sketch of the killer and the description of Mark hearing footfalls of the ghost which was like “hearing someone stepping down a passage within his own head” convey a powerful sense of fright and dread. Most incidents, nonetheless, are not of a gory disposition.