Julia. Ghost Story. Shadowland. Floating Dragon. The Talisman, with Stephen King. Mystery. Koko. The Throat. Peter Straub wrote one bestseller after another in the '70s and '80s, and won critical awards while doing so. As the paperback market shriveled in the '90s, his sales fell even as he continued to draw praise as the most literate of horror writers. He returned to the #1 spot two years ago with a second King collaboration, Black House, but sales were dampened by a pub date of 9/15/2001. Now Straub has written lost boy lost girl, a haunted house tale that some are calling the best and most accessible novel of his career—and the author and his publishing team are planning to make it a success.
The lobby is a field of slate hemmed by cliffs of books, as grand and imposing as the publishing giant it guards. We're in the Random House building in midtown Manhattan, on our way to speak with Gina Centrello, president and publisher of the Random House Ballantine Publishing Group. Now that lost boy lost girl is written and edited, its fate lies primarily in her hands.
It took some persuading to get Centrello to speak with us, as she's taken knocks from the press recently, first when she was named to head Random in place of Ann Godoff, and more recently in a New York Times magazine portrait of Random CEO Peter Olson. But Centrello seems happy to see us, offering a firm handshake and a smile as soon as we arrive. A petite woman, she's dressed in a smart gray suit and white blouse that set off her intense brown eyes. Her office is large and spare, with lots of window and a tastefully appointed seating area where we talk.
"What," we ask, "are you doing to reverse the slide in Straub's numbers?"
Centrello responds with confidence. "The best thing to do is to let the book speak for itself. This is vintage Straub. We need everybody to understand that. We've gotten out a lot of ARCs. Our first printing is up to a little over 85 [thousand], which is almost double over what we were able to do on his last book."
"And," Centrello adds, "we changed the packaging a little." She pulls down a copy of lost boy lost girl from a shelf and cradles the book in her hands, her enthusiasm obvious. The jacket depicts a girl in a nightgown standing atop a spooky stairway. "It's horror, but smart horror. It's attractive, isn't it?"
We note that Straub's name is twice as large as the title and that, white letters against black, it springs off the jacket. Centrello nods. "We're going after some of his lapsed readers. We want to remind them why he's so terrific. He's a commercial writer but with literary underpinnings. He's 'smart commercial,' as I call it. And he's at the top of his form right now. "
We point out that the book is much thinner than Straub's usual novels.
"A commercial writer needs to write a book a year. Or consumers find somebody else to read. So he'll write a shorter book. Nothing was lost. The book needed this length. It's tight and it's smart. I wouldn't have wanted to see it much longer than that." To launch the book, Centrello says, Random will engage in a "kind of rediscover why you love Peter Straub campaign. " In order to meet the challenge of drawing younger readers to this veteran author, she refers to Straub's "association with King, because Steve skews young and old." To capitalize on the King connection, Random is releasing a new edition of Black House that will include an excerpt from lost boy lost girl.
"The thing that I hope to be able to do with Peter," Centrello emphasizes, "is to get him back on top, writing at the top of his form."
Peter Straub greets us outside his Victorian townhouse on Manhattan's Upper West Side. He looks thinner than in recent photos—the Atkins diet, he says. He's wearing a yellow polo shirt and slacks, but pulls on a blazer before leading us on a tour of his five-story home: it's a joke among those who know Straub that he dresses like a banker and writes like a bandit. We begin in the downstairs kitchen and work up to his top-floor office. Books line most of the hallways; posters of Straub's novels and of films made from them hang on the walls. Straub begins to show us a bedroom and a woman's voice calls out, "Oh, is it a mess again?" Susan Straub, cheery and slim, makes an appearance to say hello. The director of the Read to Me program, she has been married to the author for 37 years.
We trudge up to Straub's office, a cozy room that's crowded by a big desk and hundreds of books and albums, most jazz and classical—Straub's friends who aren't writers tend to be musicians. Straub leads us to a glass case that shields his collection of first editions: Frank L. Baums, Ross Macdonalds, Raymond Chandlers. He selects a white jacketed volume and lays it in our hands. It's H.P. Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Straub mentions that he is putting together the Modern Library edition of Lovecraft.
"There was a time, " he tells us when we sit, "when I felt underappreciated by the powers that be at Random." That time was 1995, when Straub ran substantially late on delivery of The Hellfire Club, his first Random book after moving from Dutton (his initial American publisher was Coward, McCann). After two extensions, in early January of that year Straub was told his contract would be canceled unless he delivered a publishable manuscript by March 1—which he did, sweating words for 15 hours a day, seven days a week. "But that is no longer true," he adds. "I feel as though I'm in a very supportive position there. I have one new book under contract. I don't intend to move—I just want to establish myself a little more firmly before I do another multi-book deal."
We ask Straub why he thinks his sales have dropped. The answer comes like a ricochet. "Too much time between books. Books that were sometimes dauntingly long. Books that were overcomplicated. Also I think people's attention spans have slipped in the past two decades."
Straub is wired with kinetic energy. He moves constantly, talks quickly and laughs easily, even blushes, emotions racing across his face. This is an open and likable man, we think. Peering at us through a pair of expensive brown glasses, blinking often, in his natty clothes and frank demeanor he seems not unlike one of Kenneth Grahame's endearing characters from The Wind in the Willows.
Like Centrello, Straub believes that future success for his writing depends upon frequent, shorter books. "I can do my best to write a book a year, which sounds like a very agreeable and sensible plan. I want to go back to writing the way I did when I was much younger. Then I assumed that you could write a presentable and meritorious novel within six months. And I think the merits of those books should lead to their attracting an increasing number of readers. That is my simple-minded plan, which is wholeheartedly endorsed by Random House. And built into that is the essential aspect: to keep writing, on the theory that if I keep writing I'm going to discover the good stuff, go deeper into emotional writing territory."
Straub was born in Milwaukee in 1943. At age seven he was struck by a car and nearly died. He endured numerous surgeries and developed a stammer that still surfaces when he gets nervous or excited. For solace he turned to books. A love of literature coupled with an acute awareness of life's sufferings have informed his work and life ever since, though years of psychoanalysis have helped with the latter. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin he moved to Dublin with Susan, where he wrote his first novel, Marriages (1975), a flawed poetic tale about an adulterous American expatriate. He followed with another literary effort, Under Venus, that failed to find a publisher. Desperate for success, Straub wrote a horror novel, Julia. That gripping ghost story found readers worldwide, just as Straub had found his genre. Like many writers, Straub loves and respects genre but refuses to be squeezed by its conventions. "As I am repeatedly and inevitably described as a horror writer," he says, "what comes to my mind is that horror then must be a very open-ended field. If they're going to call The Throat, a novel in which there is no supernatural intimation, a horror novel, then horror is really expansive. Its boundaries are porous. It can take in any kind of human action. What distinguishes it as horror is its angle of vision."
The Throat won the Bram Stoker Award, given by the Horror Writers Association, for Best Novel of 1993—one of many such honors Straub has won. Some of his award statuettes and sculptures rest on a mantel in his office. We observe that all are for genre work only.
"Many readers and critics," he says, "rely on preexisting distinctions and therefore will read certain writers in a different way then they will read other writers, and they will have different expectations. Once every 20 years or so the literary world as a whole comes to a consensus about the genre writer whom they will elect to be a real writer. It happened to Ross Macdonald. "
"It happened to Elmore Leonard," we suggest.
"Yes, and it happened to Steve. They get a kind of respectability, but because they have it nobody else can have it."
Twenty years ago, King and Straub made writing and publishing history when, in a method that then seemed impossibly futuristic, they wrote The Talisman on word processors linked by telephone. But, Straub says, he wrote lost boy lost girl by hand. "Let me show you the notebooks." He goes to his desk and brings back a large ledger. We flip through its stiff pages. Each is covered with a jagged scrawl, the color of the ink changing as often as every few lines.
"This is the first of the notebooks I wrote in," Straub explains. "For some reason it flowed along and that's partly because I love using pens. Writing this way is more immediate, and it's certainly more physical and more grounded.
"We were at a conference in Florida," he recalls, "and Neil Gaiman went with me to the Levengers outlet. Levengers is pornography for writers, you know. I saw him buying all of these goofy colors, gray ink and pink ink. As we drove back he said, 'Now, Peter, wouldn't it be fun to write a book in gray ink?' And I said, 'You know, maybe it would.' So I tried gray for awhile but I settled into blue and green." Straub's Visconti pens, the Boorum & Pease journals and "Kathy Kinser (eighty words a minute)" get a nod in the acknowledgments for lost boy lost girl . So does Straub's editor: "for her inspired editing, profound thanks to extraordinary Lee Boudreaux."
Boudreaux occupies one small office of many on the 18th floor of the Random House building. Within this warren of glass and steel, she works surrounded by books she's edited, including titles by Adriana Trigiani, author of the Big Stone Gap novels, and Arthur Phillips, who wrote Prague. When we go to see Boudreaux after speaking to Centrello, the editor, who's 38, dark-haired and strikingly attractive, greets us warmly. The first novel that Boudreaux worked on with Straub, whom she calls "the epitome of a gentleman," was the collaborative Black House. Boudreaux reenacts for us her first telephone encounter with Straub's co-author, pretending to speak into a phone. "Mr. King, Mr. King, Mr. King.' And he said, 'Hey kid, call me Steve. We're going to have fun.' They really volleyed that manuscript back and forth. It came 100 pages, 100 pages, 100 pages," Boudreaux says, snapping her fingers at each "100." Boudreaux adds that on that book, "Peter and I went through every possible question, query, comma that I could possibly come up with. He called me one day to say, 'I disagree with one suggestion you're making about the end.' He said that it was as much my book as it was theirs, and that if I really felt strongly about making the change, they would certainly make it. I thought, 'Dear Lord, you don't have to change it. You're Stephen King and Peter Straub!'
"I think he does scary as well as anyone I've ever read," says Boudreaux when we ask her to comment on Straub's appeal. "And the craftsmanship of the prose is so good. His copyeditor and I always talk about what we're going to make Peter write when he wants to stop writing horror—how we're going to get him to write a comedy of manners, because he could do that beautifully."
"Stephen King said to me that Lee Boudreaux's work on Black House was splendid. He never says that," Straub remarks over a plate of grilled trout. We have left the townhouse and are now sharing lunch at a restaurant a few blocks away.
"After 9/11," Straub remembers, "I found I couldn't work for a long time. I was really depressed. I did nothing but read a lot of books and go see movies. I really didn't know what I wanted to write and it took me a long time to assemble lost boy lost girl."
Straub's new novel reaffirms his standing as the most sophisticated and, along with King, most persuasive of contemporary novelists of the dark fantastic. The book, a brilliant variation on the haunted house tale, distills themes and characters from Straub's long career. Written from multiple viewpoints, the narrative shuttles disturbingly through time and space as novelist Tim Underhill travels back home to attend the funeral of his sister-in-law, a suicide. Tim spends time especially with his nephew, Mark, 15, who found his mother's naked dead body in the bathtub. Meanwhile, a serial killer is snatching teen boys from a local park, and Mark and a friend begin to explore a nearby abandoned house. Mark grows obsessed with the house, then disappears. In time, the house is revealed as the source of the evil that stalks Tim's hometown, but also as the site of a possible great marvel.
"Why did you want to write lost boy lost girl?" we ask.
"One connection was my feeling about my son, who's now 26. I wasn't aware of this until I was well into the book, but it's about a love that a man feels for a younger male relative of his, and his wish that the boy not be damaged.
"If there is another connection it has to do with technique. I began to feel I had a way into it only when I started thinking about the way Paul Scott's Raj Quartet is organized. I began to think that I could make something of the material that I had in mind if a point of view kept being dislocated and different people reported their responses to the same events. That led me into the matter of narrative reliability and a kind of essential ambiguity, which interested me enormously as a way to destabilize what would otherwise be a ghost story or a serial killer story. For about six minutes the book had a sub-title. It was lost boy lost girl: the uses of horror, only that seemed like a giveaway."
The "giveaway" refers to the possibility that the entire narrative can, and according to Straub perhaps should, be perceived, as he puts it, as a "compensatory fantasy" made up by Underhill to deal with his grief over his nephew's disappearance and, maybe, death. But Straub knows that many will read the book only for its glittering surface. "A lot of readers will say, 'Okay here's this ancient hack who's written far too much and we know what he's about. ' You know if you read it that way it's going to be a very mysterious book." To deflect those who approach his books strictly as genre entertainment, who fail to probe their kaleidoscopic structures—and perhaps to explore his own nagging questions about his work—Straub several years ago created the inimitable Putney Tyson Ridge, Ph.D., a smalltown academic whose reviews of Straub's novels occupy a prominent place on Straub's Web site (www.net-site.com/straub). Ridge, allegedly a boyhood pal of Straub's, has this to say, for example, about the author and his biggest success, Ghost Story: "One of my friend's most defining traits is literal-mindedness. A literal minded person in the grip of mystic fancies can only press them to the dubious conclusion that reality itself is a variety of fiction. Ghost Story avoids this ripely decadent notion, but only barely...That the reading public responded positively to this balderdash is... extremely discouraging to a responsible educator like myself. The reliable Elmore 'Dutch' Leonard knew what was up. His review of the book contained the clear-sighted sentence, 'This isn't fiction, it is hype.' The novel does contain some excellent descriptions of snow."
When David Gernert left his post as editor-in-chief of Doubleday in 1996 to launch a literary agency, he had six clients: John Grisham, Stewart O'Nan, Peter Guralnik, Mark Childress, James W. Huston—and Peter Straub. Now the David Gernert Company encompasses four agents with about 100 clients. Only two of those writers are on show in the quiet, chic reception area of the firm's midtown Manhattan offices, however: Straub, represented by a stack of Black House copies, and Grisham, via displays of A Painted House and Bleachers.
An assistant serves us a delicious cup of coffee, which we praise as we are shown into Gernert's office. The agent rises from his chair, grinning, and insists we follow him to an anteroom to admire the new Keurig machine he's bought—a large, shiny metal contraption that, he says, brews one perfect cup at a time. Settling back in, we ask him about Straub's trouble at Random over the Hellfire Club contract. "From my perspective," Gernert says, "the short version of it is that Peter suffered from being one of the authors to whom Joni Evans decided to pay a ton of money to steal from another publisher. And he didn't write the book promptly. So when the subsequent administration was running things, the first thing they did, as always happens, is look for books that their predecessor paid a lot of money for and then try to undo them in some way. And that's what happened."
With thinning sandy hair and goatee, Gernert, lean, lanky and blue eyed, in a tan suit and open neck white shirt, fits right into his stylish office of black leather and blond wood. He speaks softly, in a kind of drawl, and seems amazingly at ease for a man running one of the most admired literary agencies in New York. We ask him about Straub's sales.
"It's important to realize that while his sales have declined, the mass market sales continue to be in the 400,000-copy range. So there are still a lot of readers out there. There's still a very good base to build on. If an author whose sales have declined writes a book that people really spark to, then you can build the author just the way you would build a new author, except they already have a substantial number of readers to build on. Gina is committed to building Peter. Lee is more committed than anyone could possibly be. Peter is committed to it. So already you have the participants agreeing on what the real situation is. Nobody is pretending that Peter has as many readers as he wants. He wants to have a million readers in paperback, and in hardcover a couple of hundred thousand."
The film rights to lost boy lost girl, Gernert explains, are being marketed by the Endeavor Agency, on Gernert's recommendation. Only two Straub novels have reached the screen: Julia, released in America as The Haunting of Julia, and Ghost Story, which roared into the box office that same year—1981, a long time ago. "Peter has not had the greatest luck on the film side," Gernert observes. "For a reason that's fairly apparent, which is that to take one of Peter's big novels and get a 110-page screenplay out of it is an enormous challenge. They're very complex stories. What's amazing about the new book is that when Peter said, 'It's shorter,' I wondered if he'd jettisoned the wonderful interconnectivity that to me is a trademark of his books, and he didn't. It's still in there. It's just tighter. "
Although Gernert's primary responsibility to Straub is fiduciary, he advises on myriad matters and we're curious as to what he thinks Straub's strengths are as an artist.
"He is a very gifted, natural storyteller. He also, at a very sophisticated level, understands how novel construction works—probably at a level beyond anyone else that I've worked with. People who think of him as a 'horror writer' have no idea how good a writer he really is. The number of literary writers who name Peter among their five favorite writers is enormous. He's at the very high end of what might be called 'commercial' writers."
Over coffee at the restaurant, we decide to plunge ahead and ask Straub about personal matters. We're particularly interested in whether he, like some other writers who trade in the fantastic, harbors a spiritual side. "There are some scenes in your books," we suggest, "where the characters seem to experience a kind of mystical breakthrough."
Straub looks surprised. He flushes and begins to stammer. "Whew. This, these, this, these experiences come to me, well they usually come to me about once every 10 years, I think they happen with some frequency in childhood. It's like having your eyes washed so you actually know what you're looking at is the real reality and everything else is kind of a dim, veiled, dirtied up version of it. The authenticity of what you perceive is undeniably apparent.
"The last time, I had an experience in my kitchen on a dark, overcast morning. We had forgotten to raise up the awning, so it held a big black belly of water. My kids were running around the kitchen. My wife went out there with a broom and she poked the broom up into the bottom of the bulge and this amazing cascade of water shot up. The cats ran in opposite directions and my children jumped up and down with glee and then I looked around the kitchen and there was this sacred toaster there, this sacred Cuisinart. There were the pots and pans, every one of them swarming with life. It's the sacredness of the actual world. It is a powerful experience."
We allow that we've experienced the same and Straub thrusts out a hand for us to shake. His face glowing, his eyes as clear as dawn, for the moment he looks like a birthday kid, although we know he turned 60 this past April. And how did that feel?
"It was a milestone that came as a shock even though I was 59 for a whole year. Sixty seemed like another order of being and yet internally I felt so good. I feel centered. I feel productive. I feel content. But I can see the end, you know. It might be 20 years away or 30 years away or 15 years away. I know that I'm not going to write another 16 books. But I do want to write something better then I ever have.
"You know," he adds, taking a sip from his cup of decaf, "I'm trying to lead a very nice life funded by what I do. I'd be a wreck if I didn't have this magical outlet."
|Thanks to Bill Schafer of Subterranean Press for sending a copy of Bill Sheehan's critical biography of Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, to use as background for this article—Jeff Zaleski|