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PETER STRAUB
Sax & Violence, Doppelgängers & Dialogue

JULY 1999 By Paula Guran

Peter With his latest novel, Mr. X, Peter Straub masterfully returns to the supernatural with a delightfully bizarre take on the theme of the doppelgänger. The intricate tale also involves dual protagonists. One, Ned Dunstan, discovers not only his own true identity, but the fantastic truth about his family and their unusual powers. The second, the eponymous Mr. X, believes the fictional Cthulhu Mythos of H. P. Lovecraft is true, and that he has been chosen to bring about a triumphal "return" of the Elder Gods -- and he is every bit as monstrous as Lovecraft intended his alien race to be.

It occurred to me as I read Mr. X that this supernatural theme of a doppelgänger is, really, quite a natural one for Straub. A certain duality is not unusual in authors, of course, and perhaps such an excess of personality is even an auctorial necessity. Straub, however, actually has two acknowledged alter egos: Tom Underhill, a nice fellow-novelist who figured in Straub's novels Kokoand The Throat and the excessively academic (and less "nice") Professor Putney Tyson Ridge, chair and sole member of the Department of Popular Culture, Popham College, located in that veritable grove of academe, Popham, Ohio.

Mr. Straub claims his counterpart, Professor Ridge, sees him as a dismal failure. who "succeeded in developing my few, decidedly unremarkable talents well enough to produce two moderately satisfactory works of fiction, Julia and If You Could See Me Now. My career since then has been a case study in the destructive effects of misguided praise and vulgar popularity upon a writer too foolish to accept his limitations."

The indefatigable and invariably inaccurate Professor Ridge holds forth at great length on Straub's official Web site and has even written jacket copy for some of the author's limited editions. It came as no surprise when I discovered the earnest professor was intimately involved with the execution of Mr. X -- even to the extent of writing a now excised preface which, thanks to Subterranean Press, at least has been preserved for posterity in a limited chapbook form, Peter and PTR: Two Deleted Prefaces and an Introduction. Yes, the author's doppelgänger writing about the author's story about a doppelgänger...

But, I digress -- something one is wont to do when mentioning the prolix professor as his style is rather infectious. (You can read a great deal of the professor's "comments" at http://www.net-site.com/straub/)

book The point I set out to make was that Straub has crafted a terrific tale involving a doppelgänger -- the supernatural secret sharer of a life, an unknown double, a shadow self. It's no secret, however, that Straub himself combines the double whammy of true literary talent with an ability to sell enough books to achieve a fairly comfortable level of prosperity in a world where the phrase "successful novelist" is more often oxymoronic than not. Straub has managed this feat while progressing from book to book, always taking another step toward the challenge of "something more," never falling into self-imitation or even repetition. While remaining, essentially, a storyteller, Straub has evolved into a complex literary writer. His first novel, Marriages (1973) was mainstream fiction. He tried his hand at what was then touted as "gothic fiction" with his second novel, Julia (1975) and found his literary home in the dark. Ghost Story (1979), Shadowland (1980), and Floating Dragon(1983) followed. He ventured more into fantasy with the Stephen King co-written The Talisman (1984). Straub abandoned the supernatural with the novella "Blue Rose" (1985) and the "Blue Rose" trilogy of novels, Koko (1988), Mystery (1990), and The Throat (1993). Although there was nothing of the occult in The Hellfire Club (1996), Straub twisted the gothic into a modern mode by frightening readers with a modern monster and a vivid view of the festering corruption of present day American society.

Although I considered interviewing Professor Ridge, I felt a short dialogue with Peter Straub would better serve us all. I also decided that Mr. X is so damned rich, that we should limit our dialogue to informally exploring the book without going off on any of the myriad of tangents one can meander into with the always-fascinating and ever-erudite Mr. Straub.

PG: Peter, your publicity on Mr. X plays up that it is a return to "supernatural horror" for you. A bit misleading, isn't it? Yes, the supernatural elements are indeed there (in buckets!), but your play on the psychologically terrifying -- the loss of self, confusion of identity, the exposure of truth, the manipulation of reality -- is, to me anyway, the truly disturbing essence here.

PS: Hey, whaddaya tryna do, spoil the fun, spill the beans, rock the boat? Sheesh. Okay, maybe Mr. X isn't exactly a "horror" novel, but it's got most of the stuff regular horror novels have in them. (I'm tempted to say something nasty here, something that would begin with the words "Except for the..." and finish with an adjective-noun dyad in which the adjective would come from the well-stocked negativity-pool and the noun from the Elements of Fiction Handbook, but some readers would fail to grasp my comic intent, so I'll resist.) Maybe Mr. X is a post-horror novel; maybe it's even post-genre. It's definitely on the postal side, as in "going postal." These days, I think postal is definitely the way to go. It's the only sure-fire way to keep yourself interested, for one thing. For another, several close friends and a surprising number of relatives have told me I'm a postal kind of guy.

PG: Let the reader note that the author, although rather formidably sized and occasionally a bit blustery, has never appeared to this interviewer as prone to going postal. Perhaps it is only close friends and relatives that bring out this facet. Speaking of relatives -- this brings us back to Mr. X -- a book that deals with the decidedly odd Dunstan family. I see this as the gothic element emerging again in Mr X: the theme of the "cursed family" -- something you dealt with in a non-supernatural way in Hellfire Club. To me, these two books show us just how rich, how radically new this indeterminate label "horror" can be. Hellfire was the non-supernatural "modern monster"/corrupt society bookend. Mr X the supernatural/personal inner-investigation bookend.

PS: Let's get serious here, all right? That thing you said, you know, that thing about "indeterminate," "radically new," and "bookends," that was right on the money. The gothic is where I feel most at home, so I tend to hang out there. Only I'm not sure the Dunstans in MR. X are a cursed family. They're more like "gifted," or "exceptional," or even, as the French say, "special." Of course, they do produce more than their share of deformed children, and when I use the word "deformed," I mean "spectacularly grotesque," I mean "sometimes equipped with flippers, claws, wings, and the heads of beasts." But it doesn't make them bad people.

PG: Okay, the Dunstans then are not bad, but the character of Mr X reveals a great deal of himself in some pretty bad writing. X is a man who sincerely believes that H. P. Lovecraft's mythology of Elder Gods and Great Old Ones is literally true. He gives mankind the.opportunity to discover "the truth" by attempting to write in the style of Lovecraft. How hard was it to write so BADLY? Your Lovecraft-imitator pastiches were utterly wonderful in their, uh, awful perfection.

PS: I beg your pardon? "BADLY?" You must work on these elitist impulses of yours, Paula, or you'll find it impossible to get a position in academia. My old pal and perpetual noodge, Professor Putney Tyson Ridge, has explained this issue to me during many, many late-night discussions, most of them in bars. The term you want is "differently inspiredly," maybe, or "genre-determinedly." [The interviewer inserts her humble apologies and thanks the author and the professor both for pointing out the error of her ways. -- PG] And, now that the question has been restated in a manner inoffensive to those tender readers who like that sort of thing, the answer is -- Hard, are you kidding, it was a piece of cake. Writing genre-determinedly involves only a few easy-to-learn principles, among them the following: don't skimp on the adverbs and adjectives; in every paragraph, write at least one sentence completely backward; when forced to choose between action or description, go for description every time; throw in plenty of semi-archaisms like "whence," "thence," and "whereupon"; frequently italicize and exclaim (!); and never, ever understate.

PG: Although I appreciate HPL, the "father of modern horror," I'd be considered only a casual reader. I'm sure that true Lovecraftians will find all sorts of nuances in Mr. X that I never caught -- not that this kept me from fully enjoying the book. How much research did you put into that part? You seemed to have a lot of fun with it.

PS:Since my memory of the Lovecraftian aura is pretty vivid, I did not have to do too much research. I did leaf back through S. T. Joshi's recent biography of Lovecraft, which is a very informative and enjoyable wander through HPL's curious life. Joshi is extremely funny on the subject of the obsessed Lovecraft's Herculean efforts during his exile in Brooklyn to locate and purchase a drab, unobtrusive, and, above all, inexpensive grey suit of the kind worn years before by gentlemen resident in the city of Providence, Rhode Island. The hysterical euphoria experienced by his subject upon the old gentleman's release from exile and ecstatic return by rail to home ground is even funnier. (At the time, by the way, the "old gentleman" was thirty-six.)

PG: Not to bring up bad memories, but I recall that with Hellfire you went through some writerly trauma and were heading nowhere fast when suddenly Dick Dart -- one of the most heinous villains of all time -- sprang fully armed from your furrowed brow and showed you where to go. Did you experience any similar epiphanies or blockages with Mr. X?

PS: This book emerged far more smoothly than THe Hellfire Club. I had to be sedated only a couple of times, and I think the unconscious sobbing, not to mention the projectile vomiting, may be gone for good. My only real problem had to do with the deadline. When I realized that I had six months in which to write about five hundred pages, I decided to speed up the process by writing out a detailed outline, by hand, a fast-forward version of the rest of the book. I thought it might take a month or two, but I started this outline in early July and finished it in mid-October. It covered both sides of one hundred and sixty pages of medium-ruled "legal" notepaper with annotation margins from Levenger. I asked for a two-month extension, and my editor gave me the two extra months and handsomely added a third.

The greatest difficulty I had was with chronology. I kept figuring out when various characters were born so that I could place certain crucial events in years when they would be neither too young nor too old for them, which meant that the ages of various other characters had to match the dating. I think I get most of the dates right in the end, although there was one important moment that refused to fit into everyone's timetable and therefore, if you are the sort of person who reads while holding a calculator, takes place in two different times eight years apart. I don't think anyone is going to notice, though.

PG: Music plays an important role in Mr. X. Is your love for music and own musicianship surfacing even more these days? I note a fondness for the classical as well as jazz, too, but still -- will we soon find you abandoning the literary to play jazz tenor sax in smoky bars?

PS: That the narrator's mother was a part-time jazz singer allowed me to indulge myself more or less shamelessly. I don't think that is likely to happen again. It probably shouldn't, either. But anyone curious about the miraculous alto solo described in the book's last pages can listen to an extremely close approximation of it merely by picking up a CD of Jazz Goes to Junior College by the Dave Brubeck Quartet and advancing to track two, "These Foolish Things."

I was planning to give up writing so that I could play tenor in smoky bars every night, it sounded like a lot more fun, and I bought a Selmer Mark 6 tenor saxophone expressly for that purpose. Unfortunately, and I think this is truly unfair, despite my many years spent listening to jazz tenor players, I discovered that I couldn't play the thing at all. What a bummer. Honks and squeaks. Talk about disappointment.

PG: Leaving the author to brood about his quest for musical skill, I'll conclude by saying that If Peter Straub could play saxophone like he can write, he'd be Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane all rolled into one with nary a honk nor squeak -- but I hope he never finds his musical chops. It may not be as much fun as playing in bars, but he's a master at this writing gig.


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