There’s still a tendency to consider horror fiction as less than literary, even though acclaimed authors such as Henry James and Edith Wharton ventured into its dark terrain. That dismissive pigeonholing has been compellingly rebuffed by the career of Peter Straub, winner of 10 Bram Stoker Awards from the Horror Writers Association and a World Fantasy Convention Lifetime Achievement Award. Straub’s latest, Interior Darkness, a collection of 16 stories, including three not previously collected, as well as perhaps the only horror story inspired by Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” is being published by Doubleday this month. Neil Gaiman wrote, “If you care about the short story, you should read this book, and watch a master at work.”
Straub learned early on that the world is a dangerous place: he lost a year of school after being hit by a car in first grade, a trauma that he later inflicted on one of his protagonists, Mystery’s Tom Pasmore. That near-fatal accident plagued him with nightmares, until he succeeded in exorcising them by writing stories with horror elements. At the Union Square Barnes & Noble Café in New York City last month, Straub shared with PW what appeals to him about horror fiction:“I like its acknowledgement that life is a dodgy and uncertain business, and a monster with a smiling face may live or work right next door to you. Dislocation is central, and so is loss. Loss befalls us all; loss is half the human story. Mostly, we experience moments of joy and transcendence a couple of seconds after they have already begun to fade, and our knowledge of such exalted states consists largely of their existence being held in memory. Adult human beings live with the certainty of grief, which deepens us and opens us to other people, who have been there, too.”
That emphasis on exploring his characters’ responses to grief and loss has elevated Straub’s fictions above those that place a premium at evoking shrieks of terror, or repulsion. His approach is a powerful counter to the position an editor once shared with him: that horror fiction is only ever about good versus evil.
When Straub began writing in the 1970s, he quickly demonstrated an aptitude for subtle, sunlit horror. He wanted to keep pulling the rug out from under the reader’s feet, “over and over, to induce profound destabilization.” Straub did so, in part, he says, by introducing “inexplicable changes in the landscape or topography, so that the familiar road from the railway station leads the returning commuter not to his Fairfield County house, but to a section of town he had never seen before. Yet why did the names of the little winding streets seem so familiar?” That artful approach is the opposite of popular impressions of the genre, replete with gore, monstrous beings, Gothic mansions, and dark and stormy nights.
Straub was born in Milwaukee in 1943 and lived there until he was 18. After college and grad school, he returned to teach English at his high school alma mater. He then enrolled in University College, Dublin, to earn a doctorate. But instead of writing his Ph.D. dissertation (“It was supposed to be about D.H. Lawrence, then mutated into being about the Brontës and Trollope, and after that it was given a merciful execution,” he recalls), he wrote his first novel, Marriages (1973), over a summer, and was lucky to have it accepted by the first publisher he sent it to, Andre Deutsch. After his agent suggested a change to horror, he produced Julia in 1975, followed by 1977’s If You Can See Me Now, both published in the U.S. by Coward, McCann and Geoghegan.
Straub’s breakout novel was 1979’s Ghost Story (Coward, McCann and Geoghegan). The novel tells of the Chowder Society, four men who gathered regularly to share ghost stories, but eventually find themselves threatened by a vengeful spirit. Stephen King called it one of the 20th-century’s finest works of horror.
In 1984, Straub collaborated with King on The Talisman (Viking), an epic dark fantasy that describes 12-year-old Jack Sawyer’s quest to save his mother’s life, which takes him into a parallel realm populated by doppelgängers. Straub had been a fan of King for several years and greatly admired his revitalization of the vampire novel in Salem’s Lot. King proposed that the two write a novel together after their families had dinner at Straub’s home in London. Seventeen years after The Talisman appeared, the pair teamed up for a sequel, Black House (Random House). PW’s starred review noted that “page by page, the novel reads as equal parts King and Straub, with the Maine master’s exuberance and penchant for excess restrained by Straub’s generally more elegant approach.” Although no publication date has been announced, a third book in this series is planned.
Straub is more than a master of horror and dark fantasy: his Blue Rose trilogy (Koko, 1988; Mystery, 1990; and The Throat, 1993; all published by Dutton), which rank among his personal favorites, are superior whodunits without any supernatural elements. Each book works both as a standalone and as a chapter in an increasingly complex story of murder and madness. It opens with a typically Straubian attention grabber: “An alcoholic detective in my hometown of Millhaven, Illinois, William Damrosch, died to ensure, you might say, that this book would never be written.”
Straub was taken aback when the Blue Rose books were classified as horror novels: “Reviews began with sentences like, ‘Horror novelist Peter Straub’s latest novel of horror gives us...’ ” Eventually, he came to regard this as “a huge favor,” by redrawing and enlarging how horror was defined, “so that it took in great tracts of fictional territory previously closed to it.” He notes, “As a genre, it was fully grown-up and defined mainly by the author’s point of view.”
Editor Robert Bloom is enthusiastic about Interior Darkness. The selections, he says, “offer a powerful display of what has made his work stand out for over 40 years.” Bloom adds: “At times shocking, transgressive, and satirical, [Straub’s] work makes you aware of holes or tears in our reality through which we catch glimpses of something dark and unknowable and, once seen, unforgettable. He’s also absolutely terrifying, which, like making readers howl with laughter, is incredibly entertaining and probably the most difficult emotional connection to master on the page.”
Although Straub’s oeuvre encompasses hauntings, serial killers, cosmic Lovecraftian horror, and dark fantasy, it is possible to identify a unifying theme. Virtually all of his work is concerned with how the past never really disappears; it haunts and informs the present. Straub notes that “no matter what we do, at every moment the past stares into our faces.” He adds: “It is true of our civic lives, too: the polity was way better off if it never forgot what had happened to it and what it had done. We have done atrocious things, starting with our treatment of indigenous peoples.”
Despite his serious approach to his craft, Straub has some unexpected guilty pleasures. His Twitter account doesn’t just feature wry takes on fiction (“So Kazuo Ishiguro writes a fantasy novel and worries that people will say it is fantasy. God knows, that would be so unfair”). There’s also a slew of comments on the latest season of the reality show The Bachelorette (“Or maybe... Kait’s self-protectiveness is so great that she will pick neither guy and go weeping but secretly happy home”). That hardly seems the product of the same mind that penned Ghost Story.
So why the obsessive interest in the show—apart from the importance of roses (albeit not blue ones)? While Straub considers The Bachelorette “perfectly hollow and stupid,” it appeals to him because it “absolutely foregrounds American hypocrisy, narcissism, exhibitionism, and our utter willingness to deceive ourselves.” He adds: “The program is a riot of lies, subterfuge, male hysteria, and moral obliteration. Of course, it is wonderful to behold.” Proof, perhaps, of the ubiquity of human interior darkness?
Soap operas turn out to be another of Straub’s surprising addictions. His daughter, Emma, herself a novelist (The Vacationers), was devoted to All My Children as a teenager but faced a dilemma when she went to summer camp—how could she keep up with the myriad story lines? Straub agreed to watch the show for her, and after a few weeks, he was hooked, producing for Emma a detailed analysis of the episodes she’d missed. Once, he fell asleep while watching AMC and awoke during One Life to Live, which he realized was a better show. For his 60th birthday, his wife, Susan, surprised him with a behind-the-scenes tour of the set of OLTL, an experience that led to the addition of a character to the show: Peter Braust, a blind retired cop portrayed by an amateur actor with a remarkably similar name. Straub has mused on the irony that his few moments on screen reached millions more than he has through his books.
Straub is as difficult to reduce to a label as his fiction. As his editor said, “He goes further into the darkness than most anyone, and he is always surprising. You never know where he will take you, but it is always worth the ride.”
Lenny Picker is a freelance writer in New York City.