Horror Writer Peter Straub, an Outsider in the Mainstream
Peter Straub, who passed away this past September at age 79, began his literary career writing poetry and mainstream novels. When those failed to make a dent in the market, Straub’s agent suggested he try writing a Gothic novel. Presumably there was some reason his agent thought this was a good idea, because one doesn’t just float out a suggestion like that for no reason, and I’m left imagining a combination of Straub expressing affinity for the genre, and the fact this was during the Horror Boom of 1970s and ’80s, which gave good and bad writers alike a place at the table. Straub went from not setting the world on fire as a writer to setting the world on fire as a writer. First came Julia (1975), which was adapted cinematically as The Haunting of Julia in 1977. Next came If You Could See Me Now (1977), which was, as I recall, a story of supernatural paranoia. A strong piece of work, in any case. But then came the book, the one that would change Straub’s life.
Ghost Story (1979) was massive, in the sense that it was a hugely successful blockbuster (and a hit with the critics on top of that), and also it was rather long. It was the horror novel of the year. And I don’t like it very much. I don’t seem to be alone. Since Straub died I’ve seen this sentiment expressed often: “Ghost Story wasn’t for me, but I love . . .” etc. Ghost Story has a wonderful premise, and some great scenes and underlying ideas (it’s sort of a horror novel about the horror genre), but is also sloppily written and sentimental.
Straub of course became inextricably linked to Stephen King. They both came up in the genre at the same time (the year Ghost Story came out, King released The Dead Zone), and as Straub’s novels got longer and stayed that way for years so, eventually, did King’s. It felt inevitable that they would collaborate. Their joint effort The Talisman (1984) was Straub’s first book since publishing Shadowland, his (very good) dark fantasy about children at a private school. I remember liking The Talisman quite a bit—lots of fun adventures before getting to the climax, which is a bit much. Although it is hardly the most beloved among either man’s bibliography, they followed up with a sequel, Black House, in 2001.
But we must back up. In 1983, Straub published Floating Dragon. It’s a pretty wild novel, incorporating an Outbreak-style plague subplot; the small well-to-do Connecticut town where the novel is set harboring ancient, murderous evil; and simply creating and populating its fictional location. In that sense, Floating Dragon is Straub’s Salem’s Lot. However, in this case, at least, Straub has King beaten when it comes to carnage. The body count in Floating Dragon is absolutely huge. When the plague hits the town—and this is fairly early in the proceedings—Straub describes at length who dies, and how they died, and how grotesque it all is. And then as the supernatural starts coming through strong, Straub writes eerily about, for example, young children committing suicide in groups. But the most important thing about Floating Dragon is that about halfway through, an Appalling Thing happens.
I heard about this scene before I read the book. I just finished reading Floating Dragon, in fact, but I’ve known about this shocking development at least since junior high. The scene made my brother sort of angry, and a horror critic—I believe it was Michele Slung—wrote a review of the novel that highlighted this moment (I hope it’s clear that I’m still undecided about whether to tell you or not) as the reason she believed the novel ultimately failed. Okay, I’ll tell you: Laura, the pregnant wife of Richard, one of the protagonists, is killed, as is her late-pregnancy baby, and Straub describes Richard discovering the two corpses. Pretty unpleasant. My own take on it is that this is a novel lousy with appalling things. A good dozen appalling things have already been described at length. Why is this the line that shouldn’t be crossed? Compared to a lot of niche horror these days, Straub’s scene is nothing. Its impact on the novel should have been stronger, and I think Straub botches that a little bit, but it’s completely of a piece with the rest of the book.
While reading Floating Dragon, a couple things occurred to me, which is that when writing his novels, Straub could, consciously or unconsciously, play things more traditionally, find his effects elsewhere. I also recently read several of Straub’s novellas, and I was struck by how much darker, stranger, and more abstract those can be than his novels. Not mainstream horror at all, in other words. Though you’d have to stretch the definition, one could fit Laura’s death as part of, or the climax to, a novella, because he’s obviously not shooting for the mainstream there.
Straub never said anything like this that I’m aware of, but I’ve heard other writers express the opinion that novellas have the perfect form for writers: short enough that you can’t let yourself get distracted and head down the wrong path, and long enough that there is some room to play around with the story in ways that have nothing to do with the plot. In his lifetime, Straub published three fiction collections, usually a combination of novellas and short stories. In Magic Terror, you can find what Straub (and more importantly, I!) once said was his best story. Called “Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff,” it’s a strange, disquieting novella in which the two title characters harass and torture the protagonist, in the name of professionalism. One critic compared it to Kafka, which I can see.
Straub would often publish these novellas as standalones whether or not they appeared in his collections. Mrs. God first appeared in his book Houses Without Doors but the standalone version has been considerably expanded. But the most interesting thing he ever did with the novella form came near the end of his life.
In 2010, Straub published A Dark Matter, which would turn out to be his last novel. But he made clear in interviews and elsewhere there is a version of that book, which was initially called The Skylark, that was considerably longer than A Dark Matter. It was also messier, which is why he slaved away on a proper draft for publication. Yet he was so taken with that messier draft that he wanted it to see the light of day as well. So, he published The Skylark with Subterranean Press. I wish I’d known about this at the time, because now I can’t afford the kind of scratch The Skylark is going for. Luckily, Straub was a bit obsessed with this version, because from the material he extracted to get to A Dark Matter, Straub was able to fashion two novellas: The Process (is a Process All its Own) and A Special Place. Bother feature Tilly Hayward, a mid-twentieth-century serial killer who, in The Process, is stalking a particularly desirable victim, and in A Special Place, is grooming his nephew, Keith, who is of a like mind.
At the end of A Special Place, Keith wants to show Tilly his “special place,” which is the abandoned building where you (they) bring your victims, so you (they) can murder and dismember in peace. Tilly is proud of what Keith has done, but is more interested in Miller, the sad, bullied teenager Keith has dominated and raped until he was basically Keith’s slave. Keith lets Tilly have an hour alone with Miller, and when he returns, Tilly urges Keith to kill Miller:
“It’s up to you now, Keith.”
The boy turned his head to take in his uncle’s handsome, smiling face. “It’s his time, son.”
“Use your present on mine.”
“He’s half-gone already. Hell, the cold would get him if we just left him here. We can hardly take him to a hospital, can we?”
Keith looked back down at Miller’s battered, shivering husk.
“Didn’t you know that it was always going to turn out this way? Sure you did. You’ll do me proud, kiddo. This is your graduation. Welcome of the world, son—I mean that.”
The details describing how we got to this point are of course horrific. Though still underplayed, Keith’s treatment of Miller throughout the novella is horrifying, as is the casual way Straub describes it.
These two novellas about Tilly Hayward are excellent non-supernatural horror, in their way more graphic than anything else I’ve read by Straub, and they exist only as standalone novellas (and presumably part of a messy and unaffordable novel).
The same goes with The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine (2011), a fairly abstract story about the sexual relationship between an older man and young woman, who seem to spend their entire lives on a huge yacht, where they eat exquisite and ever-more-unfamiliar food. We don’t get a lot of answers at the end of this one (who or what, exactly, is serving them?), which to me makes it more exciting, and underlines my theory about Straub and novellas.
Across his nearly half-century-long career, Peter Straub wrote mainstream horror and decidedly non-mainstream horror. He published with major presses and tiny presses. He wrote solo and alongside the biggest name in the business. He won five Bram Stoker Awards (three of those were for his last three books), and he wrote a handful of books that people still seek out, even if they don’t read much else by him.
According to his Twitter feed, Straub had been working hard on another novel, one he often expressed an eagerness to return to, but which his health problems kept him from doing. It’s unfortunate that he did not get the chance to complete that last project. But he has left an indelible mark on the horror genre.