The Bridge: Peter Straub
The Boom: The Blockbusters
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
Peter Straub (b. 1943) provides a convenient bridge from the schlockmeisters of the bestseller club and the more refined literary artists to be treated in the next chapter. For a time he and Stephen King were bookends among horror bestsellers, and he was fond of saying that, whereas King is a kind of Charles Dickens among weird writers, he is a Henry James. This kind of self-flattery is regrettably common in Straub’s various comments about himself, suggesting that he has a pretty high regard for his own talents. Whether that regard is justified is the question.
Straub only took to horror writing after the publication of his first, mainstream novel, Marriages (1973), a book heavily influenced by D. H. Lawrence and Henry James. His agent then suggested that he write a “gothic”—no doubt because it was proving to be popular. He produced the able novels Julia (1975) and If You Could See Me Now (1977) before reaching the bestseller lists with Ghost Story (1979), which was lavishly filmed in 1981. Since Ghost Story, however, Straub has fumbled to some degree, and his work ranges widely from fantasy to the conte cruel to the mystery or detective story. Whether he has produced a single book that is entirely satisfactory, from an aesthetic perspective, is in considerable doubt.
Julia is a capable little novel, fusing psychological and supernatural horror deftly in its account of a neurotic young woman who believes that her house is haunted by a ghost. If You Could See Me Now also has merits, focusing on the possibility that a girl who died as a teenager is coming back from the dead to keep an appointment with her young lover, Miles Teagarden, who as a man has come back to see if the appointment is in fact going to be kept. She does so—but only after a deliberate anticlimax in which Miles believes she is not coming; the novel is unable to recover its momentum after this letdown, and there is also a curious problem of how to put down the spirit after it has revived. Miles and a new lover manage to do so relatively easily by fire.
A problematical ending is the besetting flaw in Ghost Story, which otherwise remains Straub’s finest weird novel. This well-known tale of four elderly members of the Chowder Society, who find themselves victimised by the spirit of a woman who, as it turns out, they themselves killed as young men, also features a not-so-subtle misogyny, one that perhaps Straub did not intend: as the novel proceeds, all the sympathy is given to the men as they seek to escape the clutches of the actress Eva Galli, who has come back as a manitou to wreak her vengeance; but since the men caused her death to begin with, how are they not culpable? But the problem of the ending is even more serious. A manitou is, apparently, immortal or nearly so; so how is it to be dispatched? The manitou itself declares: “I have lived since the times when your continent was lighted only by small fires in the forest, since Americans dressed in hides and feathers” (469). At the end of the novel we are treated to the ludicrous spectacle of one of the men pursuing the spirit as it changes forms over and over again, until finally it enters the body of a wasp. The man captures the wasp and chops it up with a knife, causing a certain amount of unfortunate injury to his hand but evidently killing the entity for good.
But one shouldn’t be too hard on Ghost Story. It is written with a luminous prose that instantly vivifies both the characters and the varied settings of the novel, and it does manage to create a sense of cumulative power and suspense. The plot seems fairly clearly to have been taken from Machen’s “The Great God Pan,” as Straub himself admitted in an interview; but it is nonetheless a deft treatment of its subject.
Shadowland (1980), the much-awaited successor to Ghost Story, is a disappointing novel that unsuccessfully attempts to inject a sense of weirdness into the subject of magic or prestidigitation. Floating Dragon (1982) is a nearly total failure in that it features too much supernaturalism. There is a fundamental confusion in the very premise of the work. We are to believe that the various supernatural phenomena that descend upon a small town in Connecticut is caused either by the release of a poison gas from a nearby chemical plant or by a centuries-old spirit dwelling in the town … or perhaps both. But the logic of supernaturalism requires that only a single cause must be put forth for a given effect, and Straub does not seem to have made up his mind whether to use the one or the other.
Straub seemed to grow disenchanted with supernatural horror after Floating Dragon. After writing a dreadful collaboration with Stephen King, the fantasy The Talisman (1984), he generated a trilogy of loosely connected novels in which the supernatural is reduced to a minimum or eliminated altogether. Koko (1988) is a drearily prolix novel about a Vietnam veteran, Tim Underhill, suspected of being a serial killer. After this, Straub published Mystery (1989), a fairly able detective novel that for once eschews the literary pretentiousness that had increasingly dogged his work. But even this work did not prepare one for The Throat (1993), an extraordinarily long and complex mystery/suspense novel that is far and away Straub’s best book overall and, in my judgment, one of the finest stories of its kind ever written. Here, Straub has seamlessly fused the Vietnam theme from Koko and the murder mystery theme in Mystery into a compelling and vital novel. There is no supernaturalism here, and no particular message except the platitude that child abuse and war trauma can cause psychological problems and lead to hideous violence.
Straub did return to supernaturalism with the story collection Houses without Doors (1990), whose chief features are two long novellas, “The Buffalo Hunter” (a creditable venture into psychological terror) and “Mrs. God” (a clever pastiche of the “strange stories” of Robert Aickman). Other stories in the book are mortifyingly pretentious.
Straub has continued doggedly to write novels of various themes and genres, but Ghost Story and The Throat remain his two most satisfactory books. He did succeed in showing that literary elegance, even if it borders on highbrow snobbishness, can be commercially successful; but his work by and large must recede into the background in comparison to the genuine masters of modern weird fiction to be discussed in the next chapter.