To celebrate his 40th anniversary of Julia, I did a marathon of Peter Straub, my second favorite author. It was a heady experience rereading all his novels; not only do they hold up well, some have aged even better. His work falls into three periods:
The early Straub (1975-1984) wrote in the shadow of Stephen King: Julia, If You Could See Me Now, Ghost Story, Shadowland, and Floating Dragon are supernatural horror. Straub capped off this period with The Talisman, a fantasy/horror collaboration with King.
In his mid-career (1988-1996) Straub turned to brutal realism: Koko, Mystery, The Throat, and The Hellfire Club are mysteries, in which traumas of the past impact the present. They show Straub at the height of his skills and doing completely his own thing. All four place in the top half of my list.
The recent years (1999-present) have seen a blending of the above two styles: Mr X, Lost Boy Lost Girl, In the Night Room, and A Dark Matter fuse the Straubian signatures of the middle period while bringing back elements of the horror genre. There is also Black House, the sequel to The Talisman co-authored with King.
Here’s how they line up.
1. The Throat, 1993. 5+ stars. I’ve read this thing six times. It’s the final piece to the Blue Rose Trilogy, Straub’s masterpiece of meta-fiction that deals with murder and secrets and how crimes of the past hold the present in a vise. Koko did this in the context of Vietnam war horrors, and Mystery was about a Sherlock Holmes figure mentoring a gifted boy. Those stories actually have nothing to do with each other aside from the indirect influence of a serial killer called Blue Rose. In The Throat, the Blue Rose killings become the focus: “I really had to solve the Blue Rose Murders,” said Straub, “and that meant I was in for as long, long book. It not only had to do that, but also had to swallow Koko and Mystery, to digest them and exist around them like an onion.” Put simply, The Throat is Straub doing best at what he does best. I resent having to put it down whenever I read it. Tim Underhill is a thoroughly intimate character, his world (both inner and outer) suffused with an organic realism few novels achieve. Heartless people. Bleak childhoods. Religious rites of cannibalism. The specter of Vietnam. It’s a novel about the ugly violence people are capable of, for reasons barely comprehensible, deep scars, and the question of healing. Only Lord of the Rings and Shogun have affected me more deeply.
2. Lost Boy, Lost Girl, 2003. 5+ stars. There’s a scene from this book burned in my psyche: It’s evening. Jimbo creeps onto the front porch. From the lawn Mark shines a flashlight into the window. Jimbo is so shocked by what he sees that he leaps backwards and passes out before Mark revives him and they run for their lives. Pages later we find out what he saw: “A guy was hiding way back in the room. He was looking right at me. It was like he stepped forward, like he deliberately moved into the light, and I saw his eyes. Looking at me.” That may fall flat in the retelling, but in context it’s a ripper. It appears that Jimbo has seen the ghost of a serial killer who used to live in the house and customized it to facilitate his murders. (The killer had used secret passageways to spy on his terrified captives, torment them on beds of pain, and do all sorts of hideous stuff.) But it turns out the ghost isn’t the only entity inside the house; there’s something or someone even worse, and this mixture of terrors is handled so brilliantly we’re never sure what’s going on. Soon after, one of the boys disappears, and the question is whether he was abducted by a pedophile or snatched into a spiritual world by the ghost of the serial killer’s daughter. How you answer determines your reaction when you turn the final terrible page. Lost Boy, Lost Girl is that rare novel completely beyond criticism.
3. Shadowland, 1980. 5 stars. The best of the early period isn’t Ghost Story. It’s Shadowland, and it holds up gorgeously. But I forgot how Straub plagiarized the magic-user spells of Dungeons & Dragons to a tee. Tom and Del are taught to fly and water-breathe. Tom takes a sleigh-ride over an arctic hallucinatory terrain. A school bully is magic jarred and transformed into the hideous Collector. Del’s girlfriend Rose was created stone to flesh from a statue. How could I have forgotten this? On the other hand, I do remember Tom getting a hand-job from Rose, as they fall in love and betray Del. I certainly remember Tom getting crucified. When he finally frees himself of the nails by pushing his hands forward (screaming so the universe can hear, his hands incarnations of pain), I feel the agony in every atom of my being. Shadowland is about a ruthless education on a punishing fairy-ground. The magician takes in the kids on pretext of grooming one of them (whoever can prove the better) to be his successor, but he really wants to kill them both, and needs to make them rebel against him so he can rob their talents with impunity. It’s about jealousy and broken friendship and tragic outcomes. Del is killed, shapechanged into a glass sparrow. Rose leaves Tom for a water-world, to escape her feeling of walking on knives. Tom grows up to become a penniless stage trickster. The final pages are as heartbreaking as the Grey Havens — and I don’t make that comparison lightly.
4. The Hellfire Club, 1996. 5 stars. Most of Straub’s serial killers work off-stage, but Dick Dart leads theatrically in the spotlight. He regales his captive with obscene wisdom, rapes her repeatedly, but also enables her to break away from her ineffectual husband. This quasi-Stockholm drama is framed around a string of murders from the past that steamroll into the present, and Nora is caught between Hell and Hades — her in-laws and Dart, each who want to suppress the secrets of a stolen manuscript for different reasons. Shorelands is among the most inspired settings I’ve read in a work of fiction, a writer’s colony seething with fascist history and secrets unveiled as lies and half-truths. It becomes Dick Dart’s playground for the final act which is so depraved I always go back and read it twice. But what I also love about The Hellfire Club is the way it inverts the conceit of Ghost Story. The cozy world of Republican elitism is now exposed directly, its corruption laid bare. Where the Chowder Society preserved white-collar illusions, the Hellfire Club shows the real ugliness. And it does so through the eyes of a woman who is resolved to do justice to victims long dead. She’s a heroine nailed just right by a male author, and a woman friend of mine testifies strongly to this. I’m hard pressed to think of a novel that better uses the device of a novel within a novel: the mystery of who wrote or plagiarized “Night Journey” is riveting enough; watching how parts of that fantasy manifest in reality is a supreme bonus.
5. Mystery, 1990. 5 stars. This novel is so well crafted to qualify as lasting literature, the kind that begs Cliff Notes. It comes in the middle of Straub’s obsession with harms of the past eating into the present, and here they are called the Blue Rose killings for the first time. What Koko set the stage for, and The Throat exposed every membrane of, Mystery runs parallel with a coming of age story. It’s set in the ’60s, and introduces the character of Tom Pasmore, a young boy who is almost killed when hit by a car (this happened to Straub in his youth, and the autobiographical fingerprints are evident). In recovery he becomes obsessed with solving mysteries, and is mentored by an elderly Sherlock Holmes figure who is implied to have inspired “The Shadow” of the ’30s radio show. Tom becomes a natural mystery-solver but gets in over his head when he insists on finding a killer close to home. The settings are brilliant: a Caribbean island, where impoverished natives are ruled over by white aristocrats who play by their own rules; and a lakeside residence in Wisconsin, where said aristocrats spend their summers — and where vile deeds play out. Mystery is about a teen learning life’s hard truths. Besides mystery, there’s romance; and loss. And people brimming with ugliness under the facades Straub portrays so well.
6. The Talisman, 1984. 4 ½ stars. There’s a special place in my heart for The Talisman, and not just because I’m a sucker for parallel worlds. I first read it in my high school years while visiting Grinnell College, and so Jack Sawyer’s westward trek starting in New Hampshire (my home state) resonated in spades. I expected any moment to flip into a Territories-version of Iowa, and the Grinnell campus to sideslip out of reality like Thayer School or transform into a hellish pit mine run by Sunlight Gardener. I even spotted my Twinner in a classroom. What King and Straub produced is amazing in both story and style. In the ’80s it was hard to find dark fantasy (George Martin being a decade away) and for me this was the next best thing after The Wounded Land. Donaldson gave us the Sunbane, and King & Straub came up with horrors just as vile (see here for the Covenant parallels). There are admittedly some quaint fantasy tropes that stand out today, like the melodramatic obscurity. It’s never clear why Speedy, Farren and others can’t tell Jack things that would help him — this isn’t a world like the Land, where the danger of unearned knowledge is woven into the fabric of reality. But the occasional laziness is forgivable in an otherwise outstanding tale of a 12-year old boy on a dark quest to save his mother and, in the process, the cosmos.
7. Koko, 1988. 4 ½ stars. Straub calls this his best novel, and I can understand why. “It was a very difficult book to write, but somewhere in the middle I saw that I had raised my game and felt as though I had reached a new level. I’ve never wanted to feel as though I was working at a lower level than I was in Koko.” It was his breakaway from the horror genre and completely on his own terms. It took me a few years to give it a try, because I’d assumed he was drying up like Stephen King. (After Misery in 1987, King went completely downhill.) But he was getting better — and Koko blew me away. I read it in ’91, a month before joining the Peace Corps, which turned out to be a bit creepy, since in my host country “koko” is what you say when you knock on a door. Koko was fresh in my mind when I learned this, and my head filled with crazy images of Basotho serial killers who announced their intentions by knocking. Straub’s killer did no such courtesy. The story is about four Vietnam vets who believe that a member of their platoon is killing people across southeast Asia. Then they think it’s a different member. Then more surprises unfold. It’s a brilliant novel, and you can taste the sweat and tears that went into it. I completely respect Straub’s reasons for calling it his best, but I think those are mostly writer’s reasons. The fact is that he’s done even better — the top five on this list.
8. Ghost Story, 1979. 4 ½ stars. Many will object to it placing this low. Stephen King pronounced it the best horror novel of the ’70s that trailed the classics Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Other. He was humble, because that accolade goes to his ‘Salem’s Lot. And it’s not often I compare King and Straub with the former coming out ahead. Straub is usually the better writer. But ‘Salem’s Lot is a mighty work, and Ghost Story stands in its shadow. To be fair, Straub acknowledges this: “I wanted to work on a large canvas. Salem’s Lot showed me how to do this without getting lost among a lot of minor characters.” Both novels deal with small towns under siege from the supernatural. In each town, the arrival of a writer triggers the calamity. The writer in each case becomes closely involved with a young teen and takes on a parental role as the kid’s life ends up ruined. Don’t mistake me, I love Ghost Story and am not dismissing it as derivative. King reinvented vampires, while Straub wrote ghosts who adopt the motives and souls of people who witness them. It’s certainly the most polished novel in the Straub canon (aside from perhaps Mystery), and a classic for good reason. It falls at the bottom of my 4 ½ category for the simple reason that it ultimately feels like Peter Straub beating someone else’s drum.
9. Black House, 2001. 4 stars. The sequel to The Talisman is the most difficult to rank. The writing on display is brilliant; the plot an ultimate let-down. The town dynamics of French Landing are as irresistible as ‘Salem’s Lot; the other-worldly dynamics, however, involve not only the Territories, but King’s Dark Tower series which is problematic. Then there is Jack Sawyer, now an adult and ex-homicide detective who is caught up in a string of pedophile killings. But he’s one of many point-of-view characters — unlike in The Talisman, which showed almost everything through his eyes — and this results in a narrative which is all over the map. Ironically, this turns out a strength as much a weakness, because Jack’s point of view is the least compelling; the Dark Tower baggage comes in his chapters. In the shoes of other characters, we’re treated to some of the most engaging sequences you’ll find in any novel. The mystery of “the Fisherman” — who cannibalizes children and leaves their half eaten corpses displayed in hen-houses and abandoned shops — and the discovery of the repulsive Black House concealed in a haunted wood, drive incredibly powerful scenes. Black House is so well written (even better than The Talisman), with a poetic and morbid humor that’s mesmerizing, that even the most trivial characters come vivaciously alive. I love reading this book; I’m deflated by what’s really going on behind the Black House.
10. In the Night Room, 2004. 4 stars. This one pushes bold ideas. Some might say questionable ideas, and admittedly there are points where Straub’s reach exceeds his grasp. But it works for the most part. We learn that Lost Boy, Lost Girl is a novel Tim Underhill wrote to cope with his nephew’s murder: in the story Mark explores a haunted house and bonds with the ghost of a girl who had been abused, raped and killed by her father. The novel left open the question of Mark’s fate. On one reading, he and the girl-ghost escape to a peaceful otherworld where they heal each others wounds; on another, he was abducted and killed by a real-life psychopath. In the Night Room makes clear that the latter is true. But it’s not realistic revisionism. Things get even more wild. It turns out that the ghost of Joseph Kalendar is enraged at Underhill: he didn’t in fact kill his daughter as his novel suggests. (Though he did abuse her horribly.) Tim must acknowledge the mercy Kalendar showed his daughter by sending her away to a foster home, but also the price she paid for this mercy trying to grow up sane. Meanwhile, Underhill falls in love with a woman fated to die in order to appease demonic powers. In the Night Room reminds me of William Peter Blatty’s Legion, his thoughtful sequel to The Exorcist. Each trails a brilliant horror piece and explores how forces on “the other side” retaliate when pissed off.
11. Julia, 1975. 3 ½ stars. This one holds up surprisingly well for a first effort. The narrative is simple and straight-forward, but more engaging than the complexities of Floating Dragon and A Dark Matter — proof that convoluted plots aren’t necessary for a good story. Julia is a clear product of the ’70s, with the kind of subtle scares we don’t see much anymore. It’s about the spirit of a long dead child, who is suddenly able to manifest in the house where she was killed, when another woman moves in. This woman (Julia) killed her own daughter recently, and is married to the same man who sired the other girl. These connections empower the spirit of the dead girl, who strongly resembles the other girl, so it’s unclear which girl is out for revenge until certain things come to light. There’s a dreamy Gothic feel, with the cruel husband and his manipulative sister, but never feeling cliche. The scene where Julia meets the other woman in the mental hospital still unnerves me after all these years. (“Get out of here, Mrs. Shit.”) Julia shouts the potential of a fledgling author and foreshadows the mightier Ghost Story. To think I was in first grade when it was published.
12. Mr. X, 1999. 3 ½ stars. It shows off style at the expense of story, but the ideas are so fun that Straub can at least partly get away with it. The best part is the Lovecraft theme, found in the chapters narrated by Mr. X, who devotes his serial-murders to the Elder Gods and Far-flung Entities. He believes that his son will be the agent of his own destruction, but it turns out he has two sons, which brings in a doppelganger theme. This has been a bone of contention among readers, because while it’s a neat idea it’s handled confusingly throughout the story, as for that matter is the entire nature of Ned’s family. Moreover, when Ned is accused of crimes he didn’t commit, the drama should be more intense than it is, and it probably would have been if the author wasn’t so busy enjoying the sound of his voice. Mr. X is the equivalent of David Lynch’s Inland Empire, forcing reams of creativity into a crazy-8 narrative… but damned if I wasn’t turning pages and admiring the mess. It’s refreshing to see Cthulhu mythology supplanting the tired formula of anti-Christs. It’s safe to say that Mr. X will please hard-core Straub fans like myself for whom the cerebral style and weird ideas compensate significantly for the misassembled story crying for a ruthless editor.
13. If You Could See Me Now, 1977. 3 stars. Into the good-but-nothing-memorable category falls If You Could See Me Now. I enjoyed reading it today as I did long ago, but it’s nothing I’d go out of my way to recommend. Miles Teagarden is a detached character and hard to warm to, but his story proceeds apace. In the prologue his thirteen-year old self is in a Wisconsin town, where he makes a promise to his fourteen-year old cousin with whom he is infatuated: in twenty years time, no matter where they are in life, they will return to this town and meet. After so swearing, they go skinny-dipping in an abandoned quarry. Something happens in that quarry. The novel begins years later, with Miles holding up his end of the vow and expecting Alison to do the same, even though she’s long dead. On the one hand, her death is presented later as a grand reveal; on the other, it’s fairly obvious from the get. These features seem subtly intended, and indeed complement rather than oppose each other, since the narrative is more arresting if the reader “knows” Alison is dead if not entirely sure. Miles must face memories about what happened in the quarry on top of now being a suspect in a new set of murders. If Julia foreshadows Ghost Story, this novel anticipates the Blue Rose Trilogy, with themes of obscured memories and past violence, even if it involves the supernatural.
14. Floating Dragon, 1983. 2 stars. Floating Dragon is to It as Ghost Story is to ‘Salem’s Lot. The difference being that King’s novel followed Straub’s in this case, the commonality being that he did it better than Straub as before. The novel’s chief liability is its stale characters. But the It-like formula is a problem too. (It is a pretty good novel but hasn’t aged well.) The pattern seems tired. Sleepy towns torn apart by supernatural forces; cyclical evil which only a small group of locals can defeat; cumbersome back-stories; confused plotting. The “floating dragon” is a gas leaked from the Defense Department, and the supernatural element is never clear. The gas causes people to go insane, hallucinate, and their bodies to liquefy (there are some admittedly memorable dissolving scenes I’ll never forget). Because people are losing their minds, it could be that the supernatural is in fact psychological, but there’s no real interplay between the real and surreal forces, and so the story feels underdeveloped. The final act is trite for an author of Straub’s talents, and the worst conclusion of any of his stories. Floating Dragon does score for the nasty gas effects, but not much else.
15. A Dark Matter, 2010. 2 stars. In which nothing matters. It’s a go-nowhere novel that offers scarce intrigue, repetitions of the same event with trivial variations, and characters less impressive than Floating Dragon‘s. Spencer Mallon himself being the worst offender. When your villain is less intimidating than Lassie, that’s a fail. The crying shame is that this could have been a good story. I like the premise of an apocalyptic guru: “Like every other phony sage and prophet wandering through campuses in the mid- to late sixties, Spencer Mallon promised an end to time and a new apocalypse; unlike most of the others, he admitted that the end of time might last only a moment, or take place only in the throwing open of a mental window. I hate the man, but I have to respect this evidence of what feels to me like wisdom. If not wisdom, a conscience.” This fraud gathers a group of students in a field one night for a mysterious rite; one of the students is savaged and killed, and another disappears forever. The other students carry scars into adulthood, and the novel consists solely of these (rather uninteresting) adult student survivors taking turns at recalling the night’s horror. But nothing scary emerges, quite frankly, and in the end there’s just not enough story to warrant 400 pages.