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Interview: Peter Straub

Peter Straub (b.1943) has been for more than three decades one of the leading lights of horror and suspense fiction. His early successes in the field, Julia (1975) and If You Could See Me Now (1976), were followed by a set of three novels, Ghost Story (1979), Shadowland (1980), and Floating Dragon (1983), that dramatically expanded the possibilities of the horror novel. In 1984, Straub co-wrote The Talisman with Stephen King; the two would return to the material of the novel in 2001, with Black House. Straub’s next solo project after The Talisman, the Blue Rose trilogy (Koko (1988), Mystery (1989), The Throat (1993)), engaged the suspense and mystery genres to construct what might be the central work of his career, one rooted in an obsession with the multifarious ways the violence of the past continues to twist the present. Since then, Straub has written two long novels that continued his exploration of the suspense and horror fields (The Hellfire Club (1996) and Mr. X. (1999), respectively), two short novels that use the tropes of conventional horror narratives to explore the relationship between loss and fantasy (lost boy/lost girl (2003) and In the Night Room (2004)), and a long novel that appeared in a limited edition as he wrote it (The Skylark (2010)) and in a mass market edition as he edited it (A Dark Matter (2010)). He has published several collections of short fiction (Houses Without Doors (1989), Magic Terror (2000), Five Stories (2008)), a collection of essays (Sides (2007)), and has co-written a graphic novel (The Green Woman (2010)). He lives in New York City with his wife, Susan.


Everyone asks about Ghost Story or about Koko—and we can certainly discuss those—but I thought it would be interesting to talk about some of the more recent novels, like Mr. X and The Hellfire Club.

Nobody ever talks about those books.

Great! So let’s start with one of those general questions. How about this: serial killers. In your work, starting I suppose in Floating Dragon with an evil that shows up generationally and kills a bunch of people—a kind of a proto-serial killer—and then obviously in the Blue Rose books and moving on to something like A Special Place, serial killers have been a crucial part of the work you’ve been doing. What does the figure of the serial killer represent to you? What are your thoughts on your own continuing fascination with that figure?

That’s a really good question. Perhaps at present, I’m not very interested in them because I’ve learned too much about serial killers and they’re a pretty narrow, drab bunch. When I was first thinking about them, though, I invested them with a kind of weird imaginative splendor and part of this was incited by a man whose name was The Shoemaker, whose real name was something like Joseph Kallinger, close to Kalendar because I’ve used that name. He was a shoemaker who went seriously off the rails and he murdered a couple of women—in their houses, I think—and for one of these adventures he took his son along with him. (His son was twelve or something.) And his son, probably confused and unhappy, assisted his father in the murder of one of these women. And then Kallinger, whatever his name was, became suspicious of his son and thought he couldn’t trust him, so he killed him. And the part that got me is the next turn of the screw: one day walking down the street, this man, Joseph Kallinger, saw his son’s head floating before him, his severed head, talking to him, rebuking him. “My God that’s an interesting frame of mind,” I said to myself. It was like imagination gone completely haywire. Of course, what it is really is paranoid schizophrenia, or something like that. It’s mental illness. I thought of serial killers as infinitely involved in the most sacred matter of all, that of life and death. I see the passage into death as an immense transition from the temporal into the eternal. I think there’s a tremendous focused power involved in that particular moment. Dead bodies for a while, I think, still have some of that force. So the idea of people who went around habitually murdering other people solely for the experience of murdering them, that is, participating in this great process—in an evil way, of course—from an unappetizing, mentally-ill manner, they couldn’t help but be interesting to me. I thought that they probably had fascinating inner lives. If you run your life that way, the most important part of your life must be secret; everything else is a sort of code surrounding the secret. The idea of having a daylight life and a nighttime life, as it were, just fascinated me, and so I set these people in Koko, in Manuel . . .


Dengler, yeah. Turns out to be this savage killer, but in a way he is regarded with absolute love. And the love that goes to him is aroused by what happens to that man in his childhood. He survived a hideous childhood and he was only holding it together in his adult life, and then the incident happened in the cave—something he saw—triggered this deep time bomb and then off he went. Every time I tried to describe a serial killer, I always went back to that same conception that some people are made out of other people who have a great potential for good that was by cruelty and ignorance pounded out of them, so their lives turn into retribution. Unfortunately, the retribution is wreaked upon the innocent. You know that long story, “Bunny Is Good Bread.”

That was sliced out of The Throat—and it should have been; I’m glad I did it—because it isn’t much like The Throat. It explains the man who’s the secret main character. But again I wanted to enter a kind of cauldron, a place of dark emotions and pitiable fears and inhuman domination. Everyone’s childhood has something of that, maybe only to a little degree—a very small degree—but there are children—I didn’t make them up; they’re there in real life—whose whole childhoods are composed of such cruelties I feel empathy for them. What I feel for the man who grew up from that child—Ifeel a kind of extremity of pity. I think, “You shouldn’t be that way. Somebody made you that way. You are a horrible being, but it isn’t all your fault.”

Now, some people, eventually, they make the decision that no one’s allowed to make: It is all right for me to kill other people. You know, there’s the weak link in the chain. And once you make that decision, you forgo other people’s empathy, pity, and compassion. But there was still a trace left in me. So it’s a funny thing, but for much of my work, when I look at the serial killer, in a way he’s the most beloved character in the book. This surely must give my work an odd taste, but it’s worth thinking about for a bit. Then as I went along and serial killers became so common that they were commonplace and now a cliché, I learned that they have no inner lives, that the switch goes on, they think, “Oh, I’m going to have to kill somebody, going to have to kill somebody else. Okay, I’ll go kill somebody.” Then they kill somebody; then they go back to their job at the factory. Just generally speaking, they are blue collar, uneducated characters without much luck in the world; though at times, of course, they are psychologically more involved than that. What they do is so outré, so extreme, so grotesque, so operatic that even now, having said what I just said, I think that sometimes it’s interesting. But I don’t think I should keep on using them. I should confess, though, that in the book I’m working on now, which at the moment is called The Smell of Fire, I’m just about to wade into the first Jack the Ripper murder.

Good Lord, speaking of serial killers.

He is the granddaddy. There’s going to be a little collision between past and present in which a very, very bad person—he’s Tilly Hayward—encounters his own grandfather, as it were. So that, I like that idea. I’m crazy about that idea. And it’ll be interesting to in a way enact the Jack the Ripper murders because they did occur in the world and when things occur like that they should be remembered and limned. They shouldn’t be shut away in a kind of quasi-forgetfulness. So that’s my answer about serial killers.

Okay. Let’s shift gears slightly, to what I guess you might call the shared universe. Starting with Koko and the Blue Rose trilogy you wrote a number of novels in which you had, if not exactly the same setting, iterations of the same setting—as well as recurring characters. Obviously, there’s a literary precedent for this in Faulkner’s work or Balzac’s work. What advantage do you feel that gives to you as a writer; what fascination does that exert over you as a writer?

You’re absolutely right, it’s a part of my practice. My attitude toward it awakened at a very specific moment. I was writing Koko; I’d been writing it for a long time and I’d gone a long way through. I was at the part where three of the characters go to the real Milwaukee; they stay in the Pforzheimer Hotel, which is in fact the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee. They’re there in the winter; there are big snow drifts at the side of the street. Well I, on the other hand, was at a Caribbean resort with a very nice bungalow and just a short distance from a pool. (It was called La Semana and it was in the French part of St. Martin.) I brought along the bound journal in which I wrote that book—that is, I wrote that book in five big bound journals—and I’d just got to the point where Michael Poole was looking out of the hotel window and I couldn’t remember the name of the street that runs alongside the Pfister. My wife was in earshot, so I said, “Suzie, what’s the name of that street that runs along the east side of the Pfister hotel?” And she said, “Jefferson.” At that moment, I realized, I can call it anything I like. I wasn’t going to be like James Joyce and get the geographical details exactly right. I wanted to be the reverse. I wanted to have total imaginative freedom over the city that these characters had just moved to. I’ve made up everything else. Poole lives in a suburb of Connecticut that doesn’t exist—it’s based on Westport, but it isn’t really Westport—and I realized I could do the same thing to Milwaukee. I could heighten it. I could darken it. I could stretch it out like taffy or like Play-Doh and mold it in any shape I like, which I then promptly began to do. I’m very fond of that part of the book and I think it’s good because the exaggerations worked very well. It was called Milwaukee because at that point I didn’t see any reason to change the name. When the book was reviewed in the Milwaukee papers, the Milwaukeeans were very, very unhappy because I made the place sound like a sewer, and I made them sound like block-heads and half-savage; so thereafter, I took the liberty of locating Milwaukee anywhere I liked, calling it anything I liked as long as it was pretty close to Milwaukee, and populating it with whatever universities, apartment buildings, hotels, bars, were useful for me. Right after that, we moved to a Caribbean island called Mill Walk—they didn’t get that in Milwaukee even though the streets of this Caribbean island had names just like those of certain Milwaukee streets except with –strasseon the end. It’s German the way Milwaukee is; there’s a big Polish population as there is in Milwaukee. Because I put in hummingbirds and bougainvillea, people in Milwaukee didn’t make the association. Thereafter, I moved it across the border into Illinois and I sometimes alluded to Milwaukee to the north and Chicago to the south. Then I was really free to do anything I liked. If my memory of certain neighborhoods was inaccurate, it’s my memory, and it’s pretty detailed, even though I’m probably making half of it up. I was free to wander around the city that became known as Millhaven and do anything I liked. If I’m doing these things, I almost always put in the house where I was a very, very small child which is north 44th Street, near the intersection on 44th and Auer, only a couple of blocks from Sherman Park. lost boy/lost girl is placed in that neighborhood and In The Night Room goes there. It strikes me as a place of muffled violence, of hidden acts, of dark imaginations. This is a place where I was a small boy; when I try to see through the eyes of the small boy that I used to be, the things that I see are very beautiful. So there’s also that. The fact that dead leaves in a gutter filled with running water can be extraordinarily beautiful might not occur to everybody but it certainly did to me because I was very struck by it when I was four years old. Anyhow, so what I do let there be are convenient landmarks. There’s an empty lot I know very well—a vacant lot, I mean—and Sherman Park, which has a lot of god stuff in it, including a zoo—the zoo isn’t there anymore, but it was at the end of the forties and through the fifties. There’s a movie theatre of dread reputation, now a storefront church. These are the places in which I came alive and what I saw was of immense importance to me. I was trying to understand things; I was trying to work things out. When I was five years old, I thought everything had a meaning. I thought if I could put the meanings together in the right way I would get it. I didn’t know then—well, if I were a painter, I might have been able to do it, but because I was an infant writer, I had to wait until I had acquired the capacity to read and then learned to use words in my own way.

It’s also of course a great convenience that because I made everything up I know where most things are, they have rich histories now with a lot of dead people in them. A great many serial killers seem to have originated in Millhaven.

When you drive into the city, is that on the signs: Serial Killer Capital of America?

Illinois, it’s in Illinois.

This next may bring the previous two questions together. A number of books—I’m thinking here of Shadowland, Mystery, in a way The Hellfire Club, even A Dark Matter—they’re novels of education. There’s a young character who comes into contact with an older character who educates him in profession that deals with secrets. (This is twisted in The Hellfire Club, where Dick Dart becomes a sort of horrific teacher.) And in A Dark Matter, Spencer Mallon styles himself a teacher.

He’s a bad teacher.

With the exception of Lamont von Heilitz, who is a good teacher, all these other teacher figures are horrifying. In the case of Shadowland, even Coleman Collins is only one half of the education Tom Flannigan and Del Nightingale are receiving—that terrible boys school they attend, is the other half of it. This is something that you return to every now and again, this idea of the horrors of education. I know that you did some teaching, yourself, and that you’ve continued to teach throughout the years, so I wanted to see what you might say about that.

I hadn’t thought of things that way but what you just said is very accurate. If I were standing on one side and outside, I would say, “Well, clearly this writer has an authority problem.” It is absolutely true that I do tend to resist authority and try to figure out ways to get around it or move under it, while all the time appearing to be perfectly compliant. This mode of behavior begins, like everything else does, in childhood. My father was sometimes erratic, sometimes whimsical, always pretty self-absorbed, self-involved. He wasn’t always perfectly reliable. At other times, he was astonishingly reliable, and breathtakingly helpful sometimes. He was capable of stepping into a difficult situation and facing it down, of simply standing up to whatever was there and making things go his way. I wish I were like that. It’s sort of John Wayne-like. And he in fact was a bit John Wayne-like, also a bit Robert Mitchum-like. That’s probably all I have to say about my father. So for me, fathers tend to be an irresolute, unpredictable bunch. When I was thirteen or fourteen, I got a scholarship to a boy’s school way across town from where I lived, like sixteen miles from where I lived. And I was delighted by that. The boys in that school wore shirts and neckties and jackets every day. I didn’t mind that. I liked the whole idea. And so I went, and that school was the basis of course for Carson School and every other time I write about a boy’s school. It was Milwaukee Country Day. It did me a lot of good; I learned a lot. But the headmaster was I think untrustworthy and the school itself—though I didn’t, I couldn’t verbalize all this until decades later—the school was helplessly anglophile. They worshiped everything that is English. That is on the surface; that’s what they did. We didn’t have grades; we had forms. We didn’t have teachers; we had masters. We had prefects. We had daily chapel. And there were those jackets and ties. In reality the school wanted nothing more than to turn out replicas of the parents of the students. They wanted little Horness Figure, Jr. to grow up to be Mr. Horness Figure, Sr., and take over Figure Tax Preparation. That in a way was what it was for. So boys who were very, very badly behaved, who were rancorous and semi-psychotic, were often rewarded by the school because they were good athletes, and were clearly going to go into the bank the way their fathers and grandfathers had, or take over the law firm, or the company. I was fascinated; I was intrigued. It was exactly like Scott Fitzgerald. Everything Scott Fitzgerald writes about the Midwestern boy going to Princeton and meeting Princetonians and then going back to his town in the Midwest—everything he says rings a bell with me. I liked school. I’ve never really taught creative writing except for one month. I met a class once a week in the Columbia MFA program and we talked a lot about stories and Conjunctions 39. It was great. I was crazy about them. They were fairly mature for students, but not in their thirties, yet, and they were great, and I continued to meet them after the month ended and they were passed over to Katherine Harrison. I still continue to meet them on the campus in a room the English Department gave me, to have sandwiches and just talk.

I brought in Jonathan Lethem; I brought in my editor; I brought in my agent. I brought in all kinds of people to explain things to those students. And then more recently, Chip Delany invited me to Temple for a week in the creative writing department. I rather nervously accepted and, right on the day I was supposed to go, Chip Delany had a serious medical emergency and he required an operation and he couldn’t go. So I went and a colleague of his, named Don Lee (who just published a great book called The Collective), had to take me in hand and I met students in a group once or twice and then I met them individually and went over their stories and all I did was to pound into them certain rudiments about writing clearly. Some got it; some loved it; there was one guy that hated everything I said because I didn’t like his story, and I thought he didn’t write at all well. He thought he was a genius. I didn’t serve him well. But I did serve others very well. I’m going to do ninety minutes of creative writing in Amherst’s summer program called Great Books. It’s for really smart high school students. So that’s the kind of teaching I do. I was a very good teacher when that was my job. I was so good that my first year my students picked me up and carried me through the hall. I weighed a lot less than I do now. In fact those halls were the halls of what had been the former Country Day. My old school amalgamated with a coed school and with a girl’s school in town. There were only three secular private schools in Milwaukee, and then they all became one and it’s now called the University School of Milwaukee. And it’s a really, really good school. It’s not anglophile anymore, and they have some really good teachers. I had like three dazzlingly good teachers I’m very grateful for. But I’m glad that I didn’t have to teach creative writing for a living and join an MFA program. Something happens in there, something traumatic takes place, so that eventually many, many people end up writing only for other people in MFA programs. Gradually, they’re published by meaningless presses, and they’re never really in the world. And, like all sequestered tribes, they don’t like the real world. They’re suspicious of people like me. I never wanted to have a job—once I quit the teaching job, I was officially going to Europe, to get a PhD, and I tried to do that for a while, and that would have implied that I saw a university in my future and I’m damned glad that there wasn’t a university in my future and that my PhD thesis turned into a novel and I was able to do exactly what I wanted to most which was to support myself by writing. It didn’t used to be so difficult, but it always was difficult. Now it’s well-nigh impossible; though there are people who do it. Have you ever heard of Ben Percy? Do you know the work of Ben Percy?

Ben Percy? No, I don’t.

You really should. He’s a very young guy, by which I mean he’s probably in his early thirties. He teaches—I can’t remember. He just got a better job. He’s from a primitive place in Oregon, the high desert, a town called Bend, and there are a lot of fist-fights in the town of Bend. I think a lot of alcohol. And Ben Percy’s writing always has this sort of horror undertone. His first novel was called The Wilding—it’s a good novel with a horror undertone, about people going out into the woods. His short stories often are horror stories. They’re not marketed that way. And this in the context of people who make a living by writing: he proposed a trilogy, of which the first book was almost all written, about werewolves, of the werewolf seen in a fresh way, the way Justin Cronin used vampires. And the first is called Red Moon. Anyhow, these books went up into auction and he made a fantastic amount of money.

Good heavens, that’s cheering.

You see, it can be done. His accountant told him that he couldn’t stop soon because the money is going to be spaced out over a long time and his expenses might grow and he really ought to have a steady income and of course benefits. So he stayed in there teaching but, if that had happened to me, I would have said, “Okay, now I’m set. I really don’t have to work. I mean I really don’t have to have a job.” It’s very interesting you mentioned Dick Dart. And I guess poor Nora does go to school with Dick Dart, in which she learns how a psychotic thinks about the world.


Look for part two of our interview with Peter Straub in the November 2012 issue next month!

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John Langan

John Langan is the author of two novels, The Fisherman and House of Windows, and two collections, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies and Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters. With Paul Tremblay, he co-edited Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters. Currently, he reviews horror and dark fantasy for Locus magazine. His third collection, Sefira and Other Betrayals, is forthcoming in 2018. He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with his wife and younger son.