FEBRUARY 21, 2016
I DISCOVERED Peter Straub in the mid-1990s when I was a mathematics graduate student at the University of Vermont. For two years I was car-less and living on less than a thousand bucks a month; my life consisted of handwritten letters and long distance phone calls to my girlfriend (now wife), hours of math department basement ping pong, cheap food and drink, and reading all the weird/horror books I could get my hands on. Peter’s Ghost Story, Shadowland, Koko, and his first short fiction collection, Houses Without Doors, helped me through many a forlorn and snowy night, and his work inspired my first attempts (and now my ongoing attempts) at writing fiction. In recent years I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Peter, and that he mocks the first and only suit I’ve ever owned as my “First Communion suit” fills that fledgling reader and writer from those Vermont days with fannish glee.
Peter was a giant long before I came across him — he is now blurring genre and literary fiction into a fifth decade. That he’s achieved both critical acclaim and mainstream success throughout his career is testament to his immense talent, intelligence, and integrity of vision that marks so much of his work as canon within the horror genre. His Interior Darkness (Doubleday) collects 16 stories representing more than a quarter-century of his shorter fiction. The collection opens with “Blue Rose,” a melancholy and disturbing precursor to his epic cycle of Blue Rose novels, and finishes with the previously uncollected “The Collected Short Stories of Freddie Prothero,” a postmodern salvo on literary criticism and storytelling itself. Within the collection there’s an evolution of thematic concerns and an increasing willingness to experiment with form without sacrificing Straub’s trademark narrative drive, his impeccable style, his fierce wit and deep empathy for his characters, or his ability to move his readers. Peter’s stories hit you with a bouquet of flowers and a cudgel at the same time.
I caught up with Peter on the phone and we talked about his new collection, his career to this point, narrative innovation, and what the genre label means to him.
PAUL TREMBLAY: How does your process or approach differ, if at all, when writing short fiction?
PETER STRAUB: The story ideas for shorter fiction usually come to me more quickly than with novels. Sometimes it arrives with a real thump and a panoply of noises, which means I’m supposed to pay attention to it, that I’m to move quickly on it because my body and mind want to begin work on this story.
I sometimes don’t see all the way to the end of the story, but I do see a good way into it and I know why I want to write it and what it means to me. Short stories and novellas take so much less time to write (compared to novels), so there’s less anxiety surrounding them. I’ve written for a living for 40 years and that means that my daily income is dependent upon the sale of my fiction and how it’s received; bad decisions can really undermine the way I live. I feel freer when writing short fiction and I’m willing to take tremendous chances because the whole thing doesn’t matter personally as much. It matters just as much in another way, of course, but my children’s tuition doesn’t depend on the result of what I put down on paper.
I sometimes wish I could spend a year or two writing nothing but novellas. When I started writing I had no interest at all in novellas; now I love them deeply, and I think I’m right at home with them. I know how to handle the length; it suits me down to the ground.
Was it difficult choosing the 16 stories?
I wanted to do the collected stories, two volumes, but that would’ve been an impossible sell. So I made list after list after list of my stories, and whittled away and changed my mind again and again, and I settled on these. I can never be completely satisfied because I’m too aware of the infants out there in the cold knocking on the door: Daddy, what about me? Daddy please, it’s cold here, Daddy!
I’m very proud of this book. It represents a great deal of time and effort. It’s a kind of adventure. I didn’t wind up in the same place that I started.
All your stories have such a wonderful sense of place. Most of your earliest stories (chronologically speaking) take place in a suburban/Midwestern setting, while many of the more recent stories take place in New York City, with a definite change in tone and feel to them. How has living in New York City for so many years changed you as a writer? Do you identify as a New York City writer?
I wonder. I don’t really know. My life in New York is unlike a lot of other people’s in that I live and work in the same building. I live and work at home, and for twenty years I mainly went to the places that I could walk to on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I could walk to Lincoln Center, to a really good jazz club, bookstores, drug stores, grocery stores, restaurants. Everything was completely within reach. Life was astonishingly convenient. You don’t often see convenience very high on the list of what people say they like about living in New York, but it was one of the main things I liked about it.
I think that being in New York means that I’ve been awake to other traditions and I’ve been awake to more contemporary writing in general than I would’ve been if I had lived elsewhere. It has been possible for me to know poets and writers, and all that is very good.
“Blue Rose” and “The Juniper Tree” have a connection to your Blue Rose novel cycle (Koko, Mystery, The Throat). “Mallon the Guru” features Spencer Mallon of A Dark Matter. Were these short stories splinters from earlier novels? Did they change or inform your own view of the previous novels?
The stories from the Blue Rose world were written before the novels generally. In fact, I started everything with the first story in the book, called “Blue Rose.” It was the first thing I wrote after my collaboration with Steve King on The Talisman. I took a long time off after the collaboration because I felt that I’d been working very hard without a break for at least 10 years. But I took too long off; at the age I was, a year off was too much. I was lost when I started writing again, and the way I picked up and found my tools was to work on “Blue Rose,” which was very hard to write, but I loved it dearly and it helped me get into the Blue Rose world.
“The Juniper Tree” was written while I worked on Koko. It was one of those stories that arrived with a thump. I was having lunch in a rotisserie chicken restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue and reading this little novella called The Lover by Marguerite Duras; it’s about an affair between a 13-year-old French girl and an older Vietnamese man. The interesting thing is the power isn’t completely held by the man. The girl has a certain degree of power in the relationship, which she understands. I then started thinking about a story about sexual abuse and the more I thought about it the more I knew I had to write it immediately. So I spent a summer off from Koko writing “The Juniper Tree.” I was very pleased but also very distressed by it. I didn’t show it to anybody for a year. Didn’t even look at it for a year. When I did, I rewrote the whole thing by hand and then I put it away again for another long time. I dug it out only when Doug Winter asked for a story for his anthology Prime Evil. That story undoubtedly was helpful in writing Koko and it began a thread of imagery and plot events that wound all the way through most of my stuff and culminated in The Throat.
The story about Spencer Mallon looks like the clearest case of nail-paring, like it’s something I edited out of A Dark Matter, but it is not. I was finished with A Dark Matter for some time when I got a request from Neil Gaiman for his anthology Stories. I took a walk in Central Park and I realized I could write a story about what happened to Spencer Mallon in India before he arrived in Madison, Wisconsin. I like that it is enigmatic and leaves a lot unsaid.
About half of Interior Darkness’s stories have no supernatural element. Many of the most disturbing and terrifying moments occur within the midst of a gritty but poetic realism, summed up nicely with the Deacon’s “Ah, humanity!” in “Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff.” As a reader and writer, do you find the human monster more frightening? More interesting?
Both roads are fine with me, though I’m a little more at home now with stories that don’t have supernatural content.
Was there an overall approach you had when employing the supernatural, particularly within your more recent stories? In “The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine” the supernatural is this murky, almost dreamlike state. The reader is initially given a sense that something is off, but almost imperceptibly so.
I don’t know if there is anything supernatural in that story except the same things keep happening to these people again and again and again. I wanted this sense of a piled-up reality that was all but invisible to the characters but every now and then they would ask, Didn’t we do this before? Didn’t we have this meal before? Wasn’t it better before? It’s like an excursion into déjà vu, into the experience of living inside a long déjà vu moment. I liked the idea of these people doing this essentially barbaric, painful, terrible, mutilating thing to one another out of love and mutual respect and out of actual knowledge of where it was going and what was going to happen to them. John Crowley read the story a long time ago, and he was really baffled by it and tried to make sense of it, and finally at the end he called me up and said, “Look, all I can really understand about this is that it’s a love story, and that’s it.”
I said, “You’re right!”
Where did that brilliant, funny, and awful (in the best way) “Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff” — a story of a high-priced lawyer hiring the lowest-rent goons — come from?
I had read many of the Penguin Pocket Editions, a library of shorter fiction they sold for a buck a piece. I got a copy of “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the great Melville novella. I hadn’t read it since college, so I thought I would give it a whirl, and I was just totally knocked out. I couldn’t believe how beautiful and mysterious the story was. Where the hell did that come from? What in the world made that story happen in Melville’s brain? After I picked myself back off the floor I had to try to see how I could play with the material of the story in some way because it spoke so much to me. Then, while I was trying to figure out what to do with the story, I got an invitation from Otto Penzler to contribute to an anthology of revenge stories. So I decided to write a Bartleby story about revenge and everything kind of fell into place from there. I started writing it with the very first words of the story, and with that voice in mind. I remember taking a cab to see a friend, and in the cab I found that I was still writing in my head. I saw a third of the way into the story and I knew I could end the story in the same place where it began. Once those guys, the barnies, Clubb and Cuff, opened their mouths, I was astonished, and I wrote down every word they said. That’s the whole ball of wax in a nutshell, said Mr. Cuff … I didn’t know how other people would respond to it, but to tell you the truth I didn’t much care.
As a writer who has been referred to as a horror writer, mystery writer, thriller writer, and literary writer, does genre or a genre label have any meaning to you at all?
Yeah, it does. When I first started I was very happy to be a horror writer. I wanted to write good books that were designed to unsettle and frighten people as well as I could. That struck me as honorable. The work was very dark, but there’s a long horror tradition in American fiction. As time went on, and the nature of horror as perceived by the public changed, it began to be rather less satisfying to always be included with it. By that time there was no way I could escape that label, so I just accepted it. When I published these long novels that didn’t have anything supernatural as they were basically about crimes, I was surprised that every one of those books was also called a horror novel. Okay, well, horror has a lot of room in it, in that case. Horror is dandy with me. If The Throat and Mystery are horror novels then there’s no limitation on horror at all. So I began to make absurd claims as to the amount of stuff you could jam into the category called horror. I stopped short of putting in Virginia Woolf but I got close.
In my heart of hearts I think it doesn’t make any difference at all, and these things are all artificial, and everybody of any sense, anyone who can read at all well, should understand it’s the way the things are written and not what their content is. There are good books and bad books. Raymond Chandler wrote serious literature that was framed as crime novels. A lot of other people wrote simple crime novels with no ambitions beyond that, and that’s okay too, but everything has to be judged on its own merits, and those merits cannot be determined by a genre label. Unfortunately, very few other people seem to feel this way. It’s hard to chip away at that.
I also think it’s true that every genre, as it matures, goes in the direction of general literature. It’s the only thing it can do. It’s all that’s left once you have everybody crawling down alleyways and investigating murders and the like. Once you’ve gone through all of that, then you have to start looking at things in a slightly different and/or more general manner, and you start placing characters and stories in landscapes that fit more literature than a typical genre piece.
At this point I’m hopelessly conflicted. I’m also resigned. It’s been on my mind for way too long.
How writers write and musicians create/perform are well-represented and investigated within Interior Darkness. Hat from “Pork Pie Hat” manages to survive and achieve his own brand of greatness, but it doesn’t end so well for our writer friend in “Mr. Aickman’s Air Rifle.” These characters long for an apotheosis through art that doesn’t come, or only comes when they are greatly diminished in some way. Is there a price to the ambition of art or creativity?
There’s a price to everything, after all. The whole process of writing and artistic creation itself is one of the most beautiful, valuable ways to approach the world that we have and one of the most fascinating facets of what it means to be alive.
Nobody gets anywhere at all without some bit of woundedness about them. This idea is not original to me. There’s a great book by Edmund Wilson called The Wound and the Bow. It looks back to Greek myth and Achilles, and the idea is that writers accrete fiction pearl-like around the places they’ve been hurt. I think there’s a great deal of truth in that. I think the woundedness amounts to a separation, an awakening of the mind where you realize you and the world are very different, and the world has no interest in you whatsoever. The more you understand that and see that, the more you see that other people have gone through the same thing. Every single person on earth has experienced pain, grief, loss, and these things deepen them. There’s a genuine humanity in the recognition that other people bear their own agonies and miseries and bandaged places through the world. The world intends to undermine our innocent narcissism and has to undermine it if you are to have a soul at all.
I could go on and on and name the specific wounds that happen to people as they get older … I’m not even old, Tremblay.
Well, I’m 44 and feeling it.
In two of your more recently written stories — “Lapland, or Film Noir” and “The Collected Short Stories of Freddie Prothero” —movies, literature, art, and the artist are examined and playfully deconstructed. You’ve employed metafiction and narrative experimentation in your most recent novels as well as these stories. What draws you to employing experimental narrative techniques?
A desire to keep interested in what I’m doing. I began to take a left turn with a novel called lost boy lost girl and the one that followed it, In the Night Room. The reason for what I’m calling a left turn is that I was bored with the notion of writing a straightforward, conventional, 19th-century-style novel about the characters. I didn’t want to have to go through all these mundane mechanisms to present the characters in the situations where I wanted them to be. So I made up ways around that. In lost boy lost girl, every action is paired with its opposite, with another reaction to the same event. It’s a very binary novel. Everything I was writing could be read in two different ways.
I made a comment earlier about not seeing all the way to the end of a story, and that is a matter of some importance to me because I’m really not interested in writing any story from which I’m not going to learn something. I’m not interested in writing a formulaic tale that arrives to me flags flying, fully buttoned down, and fully present. Because, who cares? I already know that story. I don’t care a damn about it. What I want is to be led somewhere where I don’t know where I am. I want to be led into unexpected, slightly alarming, disorienting territory from which I must find my way back out. That is the center of the experience.
With “Lapland” I wanted to write a story about film noir, but I didn’t want to have to describe all the movies. I wanted to be able to skip all the boring stuff in describing what happened. Instead I thought, “Oh, I’ll just use ellipses.” I wrote line after line after line of them, but ultimately I didn’t quite have the courage of my convictions. Part of what I wanted to do when I began was to have whole pages of ellipses, but I thought that might drain on my poor readers, so I surrendered and had words on every page. But the ellipses are quite important. They speak of what cannot be seen, of what happens to little boys who go to movie theaters without paying sufficient attention to the grown men who sit down next to them, and the men make the movies disappear and the boys are left with fragments, figments, scraps they are desperately trying to put together. So the story also fits in with The Throat and “The Juniper Tree” and others, of course.
“The Collected Short Stories of Freddie Prothero,” which is the most recent story I’ve written, came about because I wanted to write a story that used nonsense: childhood garble, the kinds of crazy stories my kids when in first grade and pre-kindergarten would bring home that have nothing spelled right at all, that don’t even have good guesses about spelling, whole words made up of m’s and n’s — all of that just kills me. I thought I could get somewhere if I tried to do something serious and with emotional depth in that language. It was a notion that came to me and I found it sufficiently mesmerizing to drop whatever I was doing and try to mess around in a little linguistic world I invented for myself, and I spent a couple of weeks there.
I loved doing it, and I love reading that story. I read it once at Readercon, I think. Just this morning I read it in a recording booth for the audio of Interior Darkness. I only read two stories for the audiobook. I read “Mallon the Guru” and “Prothero.” “Prothero” is especially pleasurable to read because I get to make all these weird noises and sounds that ordinarily aren’t part of my linguistic pattern at all.
What would “Prothero’s” Torless Magnussen, PhD make of Peter Straub’s Interior Darkness?
Oh, I think he would be sadly dismissive. He would say had I been captured early enough, and given the right pieces, I might have been almost as good as Freddie Prothero. Of course my grasp of the real infinite mysteries was not as profound as the little boy’s, however. He wouldn’t understand that I was doing my best.
Paul Tremblay is the author of the novels A Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, The Little Sleep, and No Sleep Till Wonderland. He is a member of the board of directors of the Shirley Jackson Awards, and his essays and short fiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and numerous “year’s best” anthologies.