DarkEcho Horror
Blowgun by Rick Berry
PETER STRAUB: Connoisseur of Fear
"I had a connoisseur's...appreciation of fear. Fear and I were old buddies, despite my best efforts to the contrary. I knew his whole family, his older brothers Terror and Panic, his little sister, Nightmare, their charming parents, Chaos and Destruction, and all their cousins, Rage, Depression, Denial, Guilt, Shame, and the rest of the brood. I had first made my acquaintance with these enlightening folks in my seventh year, about twenty seconds before being struck by a car and at the moment I noticed the proximity of the vehicle to myself and understood that an unhappy collision was in the cards." -- Peter Straub

by Paula Guran
June, 1997 (Originally published by OMNI Online)

[Note, April 2002: This interview is about 5500 words in length -- long for the Web -- but I think you'll find it worth the time. -- PRLG]

Peter Straub needs no lengthy introduction. As you will find in this interview, he is a man of intelligence, charm and talent. Over the last two decades he has used these attributes to consistently produce entertaining and literate fiction. Straub's most recent novel, The Hellfire Club (see review) garnered a fourth nomination for the Horror Writers Association's Bram Stoker Award as well as critical praise. (It has just been released in paperback.) His twelve previous novels include Ghost Story, Shadowland, The Talisman (with Stephen King), Koko, Mystery, and The Throat, the last three comprising the "Blue Rose" trilogy. He has won the British Fantasy Award, the Bram Stoker Award, and two World Fantasy awards, and his books have been translated into twenty-one languages. For a decade he lived in Ireland and England, and he now resides in New York City.

DE: Peter, you grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city more noted for its car parts and beer than for producing writers. What was it like?

PS: Milwaukee was a fascinating place. When I was a kid, it was basically a blue-collar, factory kind of town, lots of bars, lots of fights. The level of violence in the city was always denied, as were other matters. When I got a scholarship to a private boy's school, I learned that Milwaukee had a "society" element which pretended that the other 90% of the city did not exist. Also, Milwaukee was intensely (though unofficially) segregated by race: most white people seldom saw any black people except on public transportation, and lots of black people never saw any whites, except those wearing blue uniforms and carrying guns. When the city thought about itself at all, it congratulated itself on its deep normality. I thought it was anything but normal. In fact, I thought it was like surrealism in action. That Jeffrey Dahmer should have surfaced in Milwaukee made perfect sense to me, but Milwaukeeans went into outraged shock and asked what it meant. Meant? The Dahmer story meant exactly itself, the Dahmer story. An employee of a chocolate factory spent several years luring young black men into his apartment, drugging them, killing them, cutting them up and saving and eating their body parts. No one ever noticed. If an intended victim had not escaped, Dahmer would have kept going for about a decade and then killed himself. No one noticed because such events were not supposed to happen in Milwaukee, therefore they could not be happening. In the grandest display of denial, right after Dahmer's insanity hearing, the city demolished his apartment building and fenced off the lot. If you're looking for meaning, this means: you can't see it, it isn't there now and it never was, forget about it, it never really happened after all.

DE: Dahmer grew up less than ten miles from where I now live in Ohio. Luckily neither of us have overt cannibalistic tendencies. Perhaps we both had healthier outlets for our anti-social behavior growing up. I read a lot as a child. I understand that you, like most writers, were an avid reader as a youngster. What did you read?

PS: Read? As a boy? Initially, street signs, billboards, headlines, the funny papers and cereal boxes. At the time, "reading" consisted of pointing at frustratingly opaque symbols and asking to be told what they said. The world was filled with a code I wished to master. Later on, comic books, lots of them. My indulgent parents obligingly plunked the demanding me on their respective laps and read out loud, many and many times over, from the illustrated adventures of Superman, Batman, Hawkeye and Captain Marvel, also those of bald-headed little Henry, burr-headed little Nancy, the beauteously blond Mary Jane who could make herself just as small as Sniffles (a little dog, I believe, or maybe something smaller, something mouse-like, such as a mouse), Donald Duck... if it was in a comic book, I wanted to have it read to me. Eventually, they had been read to me so often that I had memorized them and was able to "read," kind of, to other kids on our block. This process quickly turned into actual, not imitation, reading, because if you simultaneously look at a word and pronounce it often enough you are bound to get the point.

As soon as I realized that all I was going to get in the classroom was illiterate pap on the order of "See Spot run. Run, run, run," the actual text of the page in our first-grade reader that made me understand I had to look elsewhere unless I was to go mad from boredom, I hit the library. The library was a gold mine. So was the nearby Woolworth's that sold shelf after of Hardy Boys books. Until maybe the fourth grade, I devoured the products of the Stratemayer syndicate, leaving out Nancy Drew because they were for girls, stupid me, I would have loved them, and whatever I could seize from the school library. My father soon began taking me, then my brothers and me, to our local public library, which allowed a maximum withdrawal of six books at a time. Therefore, at the rate of six books a week, I gorged on the dog books of Albert Payson Terhune and Bob, Son Of Battle, horse books like Will James's Smoky and Frog, by Colonel S.P. Meeker and Black Beauty,whatever I could find about child-sleuths, like Emil And The Detectives and a lot of others I don't remember. Mark Twain struck me like a lightning-bolt. I loved a long series of books about a family illustrated by Edward Ardizzone and written by a woman whose name I have forgotten but who once had a young female character, a sister in the brood, declare that "villain" should be spelled "villian" and pronounced "vill-yun" on the grounds that it sounded a lot more vill-yunous. YAs had not yet been invented, so apart from the Hardy Boys none of this was formulaic in that particular, paint-by-numbers way. There were a lot of adventure books for boys, historical novels by Kenneth Roberts, and whatever mystery novels the alarmed librarian imagined might not corrupt an eager but innocent youth. (This attitude drove me crazy, and the problem was resolved only when one of the books I lugged up to the desk was a Rex Stout novel with a death's head embossed on the cover. Demurring on moral grounds, the librarian showed the offending cover to my father, who came through in spades by saying, Hell, give it to him, the kid reads everything anyhow.)

In the sixth grade I stumbled across science fiction by means of discovering a copy of A. E. Van Vogt's Slan in a drugstore, liking the cover and forking out fifty cents, or whatever it cost, to find out what it was like. The first couple of pages transformed me into a science-fiction geek, and for the next three years, through the eighth grade, I bought, borrowed and swiped whatever I could find by Heinlein, Asimov, Frederik Pohl, James Blish, Zenna Henderson, Van Vogt, lots of others. Somewhere I learned about fandom and wrote off for a bunch of fanzines, but that world didn't interest me at all. Who were these people, and why should I care about their opinions? I amassed a bookcase full of paperbacks and Campbell anthologies, the real goods.

By the time I was a freshman in high school, space travel, dystopias, ESP, alternate futures, alien races and the other conventional tropes of sci-fi had begun to seem embarrassingly confined, and I went poking around in the fiction section of my school library. Because I liked the title and it was a nice, fat book, I checked out Of Time and the River by Thomas Wolfe, the patron saint of self-conscious, literary male adolescents convinced that no one will ever understand them. Of course, I was amazed; of course, I fell in love. Wolfe understood me! I zoomed through everything Wolfe had written, something you can do only when you are between fourteen and sixteen. I tried rereading him five or six years ago, and it was like listening to the conversation of a brilliant, verbose, self-absorbed drunk. But I'm still grateful to him for opening up the world of adult fiction to me.

DE: Tell me about the poetry. I didn't realize you had been a poet. May we have an example?

PS: I wrote lots and lots of poems, and just about all of them imitated the people I was reading at the time. Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Mark Strand, Ted Hughes, John Ashbery, and finally a lot of contemporary French poets, among them Jacques Dupin and Yves Bonnefoy. A great many of these French poets wrote in a kind of disconnected prose, and Ashbery had just published a great book called Three Poems made up of long prose-poems. I began writing prose-poems, and before long I couldn't remember how to write shorter lines. It wasn't long afterward that I began my first novel, and during the process poetry seemed to leave me altogether, or at any rate to be absorbed into fiction.

An example? We'll both be better off if I answer another question instead.

DE: Then we'll get back to that first novel, Marriages which was, I understand, poetic prose?

PS: Marriages was written at the rate of 500 words a day, without any sort of plan, outline or guidelines beyond the simple desire to write a novel. I had been hearing sentences in my head and understood that it was time to take the plunge. All my ideas and opinions about fiction were wrong-headed, at least for me, but I was cheerfully ignorant of that. I had in mind a sort of anti-narrative, Ashberian novel with a lot of Fitzgerald and Henry James in it. From time to time, I realized that despite my best efforts, the thing actually did have a sort of narrative line, but I kept going anyhow. When it was finished, I liked it. When my career as a Ph.D. student seemed to run off the tracks, I mailed it to the English publishing firm Andre Deutsch, mainly because they published John Updike in the UK, and they accepted it. That was all I needed. I instantly chucked my academic ambitions and began writing fiction full-time.

DE: The next novel, Under Venus, was less poetic...and also rejected. What kept you going? Why did you, with the next book Julia, turn to horror?

PS: You're right, Under Venus was a more straightforward novel. My ideas about fiction had finally swung more or less into line with two matters of much more immediate relevance, my actual taste in fiction and the direction of my talent, such as it was. I guess my models were John O'Hara and Iris Murdoch, which meant that I wanted to combine realistic characterization and a well-realized setting with dreams, an element of mysterious and passionate disorder, scenes set in the woods at night and a lot of talk about art. I knew that the book was many times better than Marriages, and its rejection by both my US and UK publishers unsettled me enormously. I saw no other choice but to rewrite it and try again.

Over the next year, I got more and more depressed. I began to consider the hideous possibility that I might have to get a job. In order to earn at least a little money, I took the advice of my English agent and wrote some magazine pieces and began reviewing books - Marriages had been reviewed well enough in England to make that possible. After about a year, the agent suggested that I forget about the novel for a while and write a new one, specifically what she called a "gothic."

I think she meant something kind of like the early books by Mary Stewart, romantic thrillers about young heroines, but the term suggested something else to me. My friend Thomas Tessier had introduced me to the works of Lovecraft, Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson, and together we had seen dozens of horror movies. Blatty's The Exorcist had appeared about a year or two before, and Thomas Tryon's first two novels, The Other and Harvest Home had followed it onto the best-seller list. Nobody thought horror could have much a future, and nobody saw it as anything but a tawdry, low-rent sub-genre written largely for teenagers. For some reason, that it was so completely marginalized appealed to me. I saw no reason why it could not include books better than the stereotype, and I liked the notion that I could work away in a disregarded area, learning what I had to learn free of scrutiny and critical attention. I also liked the idea of making a living.

And I was conscious that horror had a great literary history. Hawthorne, Henry James, Poe, many others had found a depth and seriousness in it which made horror, to me anyhow, more valid, more interesting and worthy, than the general run of mystery fiction. Horror was not about the invention of clever puzzles. It dealt with profound emotions and real mysteries, not who had left the footprints under the gorse-bush and how the key to the library had wound up in the Colonel's golf bag. Horror could touch people, change them, make them think. While it was certainly entertaining, there was much more to it than mere weightless entertainment.

As soon as I started writing Julia, by which I mean while writing its first sentence, I felt a sudden, reassuring charge of excitement. I knew it was going to work. What I was doing was right for me - I had stumbled into the emotional territory most accomodating to my natural gifts, and I was writing as well as I knew how. Of course, when I was finished, I wanted to do it all over again. Julia immediately sold to Jonathan Cape, at the time the best publishing house in England, and the same American company which had published my first book and rejected my second, Coward McCann & Geohegan, destined a few years later to be absorbed by Putnam.

DE: Where does this ability to write scary stuff come from?

PS: I didn't know it -- I had spent most of my life trying not to know it -- but the fact was that I had a connoisseur's insight into, experience and appreciation of, fear. Fear and I were old buddies, despite my best efforts to the contrary. I knew his whole family, his older brothers Terror and Panic, his little sister, Nightmare, their charming parents, Chaos and Destruction, and all their cousins, Rage, Depression, Denial, Guilt, Shame, and the rest of the brood. I had first made my acquaintance with these enlightening folks in my seventh year, about twenty seconds before being struck by a car and at the moment I noticed the proximity of the vehicle to myself and understood that an unhappy collision was in the cards. I've written about this too often to want to do it now, but I can tell you this, afterwards nothing was ever the same.

I believe I encountered death, which was a bit too much for a seven-year-old. I certainly encountered a great many doctors and nurses and emerged into the era of wheelchairs and, later, crutches, with a number of interesting scars and an enduring suspicion of the motives behind anyone's decision to become a surgeon. These days, there are a great many books about childhood trauma and its effects, but at the time all the experts agreed that one should forget about it as quickly as possible and pick up where you left off. Unfortunately, that is truly impossible. Fear and his relatives have moved in, and they are busy rearranging the furniture, tearing down old walls and putting up new ones and throwing noisy parties whenever they have a free minute.

So when I set out to represent these feelings and arouse them in others, I knew them from the inside out. This will lend a little authenticity to one's work. What had been an inexplicable curse became a great blessing.

DE: You pretty much "did" Gothic and supernatural with the first books, then turned more to what I suppose you could label suspense with Koko and mystery thereafter. Could you tell us about this progression?

PS: A couple of things coincided to bring about this shift. After writing Floating Dragon, a book in which I let out all the stops and went as far over the top as I could in the way of horror, deliberately piling effect on top of effect and being as excessive as possible - and which did extremely well with the public at large but met a chilly reception from specialist horror reviewers, who mistakenly saw in it mostly echoes and reflections of Stephen King, a display of dimwittedness and reflexive hero-worship I found vastly irritating - and then going immediately into The Talisman, a long and demanding haul, I thought that it was time to regroup. I'd been working without a break for years, and I had pushed my pet notions about reality/imagination, narrative unreliability, surreal intrusions into daily life, shifting points of view and intertextual pile-ups as far as I knew how to go. I took a year off, which in some ways wound up being really stupid and destructive, in others tremendously helpful.

(For one version of the grisly details, I recommend a look at the remarks of my eternal alter-ego, Professor Putney Tyson Ridge, on Floating Dragonand Koko, available at my "Official" Website: Putney was there, he saw, he did not fail to judge. On the other hand, those ridiculous statements attributed to me by my old friend never escaped my mouth. That's a promise.)

Along the way, in the midst of my rosebud-gathering I began to get a handle on the crucial matters alluded to above. Various aspects of my life began to make coherent sense for the first time. When the pattern became clear, much else did, too. It was no longer possible to wield the metaphors of horror after I understood what they had represented for me; I wanted to address what lay beneath them. After understanding that all along I had essentially been writing about trauma and its resonant after-images, I could approach the subject directly, without the transforming filter of genre, and one sure way into it was through the lives of Vietnam combat veterans, people with whom I felt, maybe arrogantly or misguidedly, that I had a lot in common. I wanted above all to write about what I really knew.

The experience began with terrifying uncertainty and, three years later, ended in bliss. Whether or not anyone else noticed, I knew that I had taken an enormous step forward. After that, I wanted only to consolidate and develop what I had learned while writing "Koko," and my next three books, including the collection, Houses Without Doors, grew out of that desire.

DE: More than any other writer of "dark" fiction I see you as progressing from book to book, always taking another step toward "something more". While remaining, essentially, a story teller, you've evolved into a complex literary writer. Reading The Hellfire Club, I noticed a preciseness of language despite it's scope, elaborations and convolutions. I find this preciseness more often in work by someone like Jonathan Carroll, where you read a sentence or a paragraph and simply can't imagine it being said as effectively any other way. I know this is incredibly broad, but how do you see your own evolution as a writer? Do you work to find "just the right" words?

PS: Now, hey, you couldn't have said anything which would mean more to me than that. I'm so gratified I'm purring. Moving forward seems like part of the job to me, at least in as much as it involves trying not to repeat yourself. The effort seems inevitably to lead in the direction of increasing complexity, layering, attention to who one's characters really are as opposed to their functions in the plot, awareness of their underlying and usually unconscious motives, the suggestiveness of their actions and along with all of this, more and more care in the use of language. I revise, rewrite, edit and delete more than ever before, so much so that, ever since Koko, I see self-editing as crucial to the process as the initial writing. It's both spine-chilling and hugely pleasurable. (The spine-chilling part enters in when I am forced to see how badly I am capable of writing, the pleasure lies in correcting the mistakes, tightening up scenes, making dialogue sound like speech, most of all in adjusting the sentences one by one toward an ideal and unobtrusive rightness. It's like applying a series of smaller and smaller screwdrivers to the individual words.)

The "right words," you ask? That's banging the nail firmly on its elusive head. Even when I was a kid, sometimes a word would charge up at me from the surface of the page, levitated by what struck me as its sheer magical unexpected rightness. I was always dazzled by the power of the inescapably suggestive and accurate word, I couldn't figure out how the writer knew enough to use it when so many other and more familiar approximations clouded the mental screen, and I have never stopped trying to do the same.

DE: You have two characters in THC who are indelible. We'll start with Nora. Take it as a compliment when I say that with Nora, "you write like a woman." I looked up your birthdate, so I think I am safe is saying you are a "mature" male writer. Where did this depth of understanding come from?

PS: Well, of course it was a challenge to write essentially from a woman's point of view, especially in these times. When I did the same thing in Julia people more or less assumed that a novelist's job involved inhabiting the heads of all sorts of characters, including those of another gender, and I still think that's true. Nobody is surprised that women writers accurately represent male characters over and over again, no doubt because everybody knows that women understand men much better than vice-versa. However, this time around I was much more conscious of the difficulties, not to mention the risks, of presenting everything through a woman's eyes, and I think I wanted to do that because almost everyone in my preceding book, The Throathad been male. I found the process very enjoyable, and every now and then I surprised myself - I discovered a wealth of little resentments and forgivenesses I'd never really thought about before.

Anyhow, I'm delighted that you think I got it right. It is true, I guess, that I am what you might call "mature." Like a ripe Stilton, maybe. I'm 54, a matter which seems more than slightly fictional to me. I don't know if my stupendous age has anything to do with an increased understanding of women. Actually, I sort of doubt it. Probably, it has more to do with imagination, like everything else connected to novels. I can say, though, that I always found women more fun to talk to, better company in almost every way, than most men. Even back in grade school, I liked hanging out with the girls. They were more interesting, they thought about people in a more insightful way than most of the boys I knew. I'm happy to report that no one around me seemed to think that my preferences were weird. Looking back on the boys I knew in grade school, I can see why.

DE: And you have inflicted us with Dick Dart, one of the most original, monstrous, and vivid villains ever created. Where did you find this smarmy psycho bastard?

PS: My favorite lawyer thrust himself forward, waving his arms and begging to be made a star, at the last possible moment, which is to say after I had been working on The Hellfire Club for a year or more and had just about come to the unhappy conclusion that both it and I were dead ducks. For a couple of reasons, none now worth going into but I assure you interesting and valid reasons anyhow, I had no idea where the book was going, also no explanations for several crucial events I had already written, on the grounds that these events appeared to be promising and surely would lead somewhere, given enough time. We here at the Gothic Works, a small factory located in Manhattan employing one workman and three shiftless but entirely charming hangers-on, had scheduled a vacation in Puerto Rico, and it came along precisely at my moment of greatest despair. Ho ho ho, irony is delightful. So I packed a notebook along with the more usual vacation goodies, grimly. My life is ruined, I said to myself, we're all bound for life on the streets and nights on park benches, so I might as well spend a lot of money while I can. (This, I'm afraid, is my version of "Financial Planning.")

Midway through the flight, good old Mr. Dart started clamoring for attention. A character too minor to be called minor, a bit player, a nameless extra confined to drifting through the background of a single scene, he wanted to carry the ball. This spear-carrier's ambitions were ridiculous, but I pulled the notebook out of my carry-on bag, uncorked a pen and listened to him. At that point, I was so desperate that I would have listened to Minnie Mouse, if she thought she had a workable idea. Old Dick thought his idea more than merely workable, he thought it was great. His talents were being wasted, he said - he was lively, funny and really perverse, qualities I should be smart enough to find useful, especially when I needed them most.

Fine, I said, okay, but what do you think you can do for the so-called plot, at that point merely a vapor. I can save your sorry ass, Dick said, and leaned forward to whisper a couple of details into my ear. I wrote them down, but without much hope.

The next morning, I brought the trusty notebook with me to the side of the pool and began considering this psychopath's suggestions. As skeptical as I was about them, I didn't have anything else to think about. Over the next four or five days, the psychopath became more and more convincing, and after he divulged the secrets of what I described to myself as "beauty parlor horror," I became a believer and spent the remaining three or four days scribbling in the notebook as I worked on my tan. Despair yielded to my more familiar companion, Resolve, and when we got back to New York and I once again buckled myself into my chair, I set about turning the whole thing over Mr. Dart, who gleefully grabbed the reins and entertained us both for a lengthy time. He was grateful, but I was more so, by a considerable margin.

DE: I'm amazed that a book as complex as The Hellfire Club was not as carefully planned out as an invasion!

PS: I generally wade in blind and trust to fate and instinct to see me through. If I planned everything out in advance, I'd expire of boredom. I want to make discoveries, I want the book to evolve out of itself, because if I try to impose my own pattern on it I'll miss everything. The process is almost never as harrowing as it was in The Hellfire Club. As I once said on another occasion, generally speaking I blunder along like blind Mr. Magoo negotiating a construction site, stepping off the end of one girder just as another floats up to carry me along.

DE: Do you think THC could successfully be made into a movie?

PS: Probably not. The book brings with it the enormous disadvantage of being in substantial measure about another, made-up book and the fortunes of a publishing house, matters of no interest either to adolescents or the studio executives who want to seduce them into the Octoplex. And the book does have a grim side, no surprise considering the way it was written, but a downer for those who wish to be comforted and uplifted. It takes a thug to offer comforting uplift. Still, I'd love to see someone try to figure out how the book could be filmed.

DE: Where do you go from here? The Hellfire Club may be your best yet. What challenges do you see now as a writer?

PS: Everyone wants to get better as they go along, but sometimes it's all you can do to stay consistent. Each new book is a tremendous challenge. The entire task is more or less impossible, so from time to time, it's a challenge simply to keep hanging in there. Because of the way I work, I never really know what I'm going to be working on in the future, but I do have two goals I'd like to accomplish some day. I would like to write an effective short novel -- say, 200 pages. That would be really interesting. And I'd like to write a perfect book, one in which everything meshes flawlessly with everything else, a book in which all the points are connected and everything, every detail, carries a charge of meaning because of these connections.

DE: What would be your dream to achieve in life?

PS: Getting my children through college and seeing them enter into satisfying, productive lives. Writing about twenty more books, each worthy of the time put into them and advances on what I've done before. Finding a greater degree of peace in ordinary daily life. Apart from that, oh, finally getting my black belt in karate, beating Big Blue in a chess tournament, playing the tenor like Zoot Sims, owning a nice villa in France, expiring painlessly at the age of 95, loved and admired by a great number of people -- that kind of thing. <

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