Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Interview: Peter Straub (Part 2)

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), which 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.

Editor’s Note: Please see our October 2012 issue for part one of this interview. You can purchase the October 2012 issue from your favorite ebook retailer, or you can just read the first part of the interview on our website at nightmare-magazine.com.

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We can leapfrog from that to The Hellfire Club. One of the things that fascinates me about that book is the trilogy of children’s fantasy novels that features in it. It seems to me that, when you think of children’s fantasy, there’s a tendency to think about it as a literature of escape. In The Hellfire Club, the “Pippin Little” books turn out to have been both a means of escape for their authors and a kind of code for what actually happened to those people, a symbolic way of representing and working through their experiences. In the context of Nora’s story, this presentation of fantasy as the escape in which you might find the key to dealing with that from which you were trying to get away in the first place strikes me as tremendously important. Nora is somebody who had awful experiences in Vietnam that she’s tried to run away from through fleeing into one kind of fantasy, a kind of phantasia of the bourgeoisie, if you will. That hasn’t worked; that deliberately mundane existence only compounds her problems. Then she’s thrust into this terrifying odyssey with Dick Dart, to quote the title of the first of the Pippin Little books, a night journey, from which she also wants to escape, but which ultimately leads her to help her to save her own life.

Yes, that’s right. Nora’s on a real night journey and she has to work out a kind of code. Varying impulses went into that book. It was really difficult to write, and the road to it was perilous, let’s say. I was not a happy man, most of the time, trying to write that book, because I was afraid I wouldn’t make the deadline, which became Draconian after a while. Therefore, I didn’t know if I’d have enough money to last me to the end of the year, and God knows, I might have to get a job somewhere. This all came out of a switch of publishers that was unwise of me. I was seduced by an enormous paycheck, and then everything got worse after that. The enormous paychecks began to be whittled away, still leaving a fabulous amount of money (as with Ben Percy it was spaced out over a long time and hard to burn). I had a new editor whom I wanted to please, Joe Fox. Joe Fox was a famous editor, a legend. He was one of those rare people who just loved editing and didn’t want any administrative or corporate position at all. He just wanted to be left alone, given enough money to live the way a sophisticated man would want to live in Manhattan, and he loved to do his work. And he was so brilliant at his work and such a fascinating, compelling guy that he got the deal, he was even allowed to smoke. Smoking was banned; you weren’t allowed to smoke in any building in America—in New York, anyhow. They gave him passes to smoke, and he built a stack of newspapers between where he sat in his desk and the door so that if you walked in you were supposed just to be able to see the stack of newspapers and maybe the back of his chair. And you did see those things, but what you also saw was a column of smoke coming out from behind the stack of newspapers. It was never a secret. Anyhow, I had a beautiful scheme for a book that was going to be called American Night and I was really proud of it. It made a great shape. It was a plot in the form of an X about two women. I’d never had an idea like that before, and probably never will again; it was a perfect structure. And so I wrote up a long description of the book and emailed it to Joe Fox, who wrote back and said this was going to be an eight-hundred page novel, and they didn’t want an eight-hundred page novel. I had to do something to trim it down. So, because I desperately wanted to please Joe Fox, whom I already revered, I said, “Okay, that’s no problem. I’ll take out one of the women.” So I took out one of the women, and then I had no plot. I was writing away and writing away, and I had no idea where I was going for a long time. And finally, on a vacation in Puerto Rico with my wife and family, that I thought would be the last time I’d ever be able to afford anything like that—on the plane, I began thinking about Dick Dart, who had been a very, very, very minor character, and then he just sort of bubbled up and I could hear the way he would talk, I heard the things he would say, and I saw that he would be really useful. The book wouldn’t be anything like American Night, but it would be something. So while we were in Puerto Rico, I went every day to the pool, and I lay down in one of those chairs and covered myself in sunblock, and I wrote in a notebook. And I sketched out the next two hundred pages of the book and every time Dick Dart rolled up, it was fun to write because I didn’t have to think of his dialogue, his dialogue just appeared as though he were saying it. It sounds childish to put it that way, but it surprised me. I couldn’t do it now, I don’t think. The things he said were kind of an exaggeration of the way a dear friend of mine used to talk, whose opinions were very pronounced. He was a man who enjoyed the company of a great many women. It was a good two-thirds of his life. He’d earned his opinion. When I put them in the mouth of Dick Dart, they were horrible and one could say sexist and be understating, but he was tremendous fun to write. I went out of my way so Dick Dart—we never actually see Dick Dart kill anybody, or even really injure anybody, except for when he ties them up. He acted like a beauty parlor worker; he—what am I saying?

Like a beautician?

He worked as Nora’s hairdresser. He turned her into a sixteen-year-old blonde. He was good at what he did. Anyhow, when I was safely into the book, most of my worries disappeared, except for the worry about the deadline, and I kept applying for extensions in my deadline, and they kept giving me another month, another two months, and finally the deadline was extended to the beginning of March in 1993, which happened to coincide with my fiftieth birthday. When there was about a month remaining, I had maybe two hundred and fifty, maybe three hundred pages to go, they gave me an ultimatum, which meant that it would only work if I got the novel into them on time, the contract would be honored only if I gave the book up by that date. I thought it was impossible, that I could never do it. And then I was riding to Lincoln Center in a taxi with my wife, to a concert, and I said to myself, “It is impossible, but I’m going to do it anyway.” So I stayed for half of the concert. Then I went out and came back and went to work. And I worked literally day and night. I must have worked ten hours a day, at least. I didn’t go to bed until two, from my desk, and then it became three, and finally right at the end I wasn’t going to bed until four o’clock. And I did get the book in on time—barely—but I managed to do it. And I was pleased with the book. It sometimes seems to me that that book was just about to fly out of control, that there’s something in it that’s only barely held together. I’m not sure. I liked all the fantasy business. I liked Daisy. I loved Nora. I liked going to the former writer’s colony and having all the pieces fall together and all the stories explained, that all felt real and true to me. But the fact that I wrote so much so fast makes me a little suspicious of it. While I was writing, I was amazed at the way information just flowed into me. I was never at a loss. Sometimes in the mornings, I would wake up and realize with a shudder of horror that I had forgotten something of crucial importance, and it was a problem, and I didn’t know how to solve it. As I went up to my office, as I walked the five floors to my office that day, the information came to me, infallibly, every single time. This was when I began to talk about celestial telegrams, because that’s the way it felt. Mr. X operated pretty much the same way, and both of these were really long books.

That’s good, because that’s exactly where I wanted to go next, Mr. X.

Joe Fox didn’t complain about the length of The Hellfire Club; I shortened it way down. And that meant I oversaw and assisted the editing of that book, with every line. He was a true line editor and he was brilliant and I learned a lot from him. By the time he was done, he told me I was bolder than he was, I was willing to take more out of a scene than he would have, and that was very valuable. And then—oh, Joe Fox died. When I was trying to write Mr. X, he died at his desk; he had a heart attack. I couldn’t do anything for a long time. I was in mourning. I felt un-housed, unprotected. You know, I’d managed to get close to him; I’d managed to get his respect. He knew what I was; he knew how I worked; he knew how I felt about it. He understood I was dependable; I wasn’t full of hot air; and also that I wasn’t a hack. I had a great relationship with this amazing guy and then he died. So I was useless for almost a year. I was assigned an editor whom I didn’t like, but I thought I might learn to like, and who didn’t much like me and who didn’t understand me at all, and this was the woman who edited Mr. X. She did her best, but her best wasn’t very good. I like the book but it’s so complicated, there are so many wheels within wheels that I think it might be a little hard to follow sometimes.

How did you come to it? Obviously Lovecraft casts a long, long shadow over contemporary horror fiction. You have writers like Ramsey Campbell saying that the first book of Lovecraft’s he read made him into a writer, and Stephen King has talked about finding those volumes of Lovecraft in a collection of books his father had left behind. These are writers for whom Lovecraft seems to be their DNA; he’s a fundamental part of what constitutes them. But I’ve always had the impression that, for you, Lovecraft wasn’t as fundamental, that when you engaged him in Mr. X, you were approaching him in a different way, one based in your recognition of his profound impact on the field. I may be completely off base, but I’m curious to know how you came to use Lovecraft in Mr. X, and if there was any connection between that and your editing the Library of America’s selection of Lovecraft stories.

That’s a question I cannot answer. I know that the Library of America people had wonderfully come to the idea of having a Lovecraft volume, and there was one man who had been proposing this volume to them for as long as they were in existence. This man was extremely eager and he saw himself as the only person qualified to edit it. The way the Library of America works, if you advertise for that sort of position, you’re the last person they want. So they thought, “Let’s get some good horror writer to do that.” I was very pleased to do it and when I was done, I admired and liked Lovecraft much more than I had at the beginning. I read him when I was a kid. I read “The Dunwich Horror” when I was very young because it was in Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, which really is in my DNA. I toted it around everywhere. I took it to Boy Scout camp once. And all of those stories had an impact. And I liked Lovecraft because the way he wrote was a little difficult. It evoked, the style itself evoked a kind of vanished way of perceiving things or an archaic kind of observation. I was always interested in that kind of thing. And if I understood it imperfectly, I liked it all the more. After that, I didn’t read anything like that until I was in London, with my friend Tom Tessier, and he used to talk about pulp writers and No Orchids for Miss Blandish and Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, and H. P. Lovecraft. So I picked up a book of Lovecraft stories, and I enjoyed them a lot. And they were so kind of grotesque that they moved into my head and every now and then, if my wife and I were walking along, I’d see one of those red phone booths and say, “You know, Cthulhu’s in that phone booth.” I could see some huge tentacled thing making a phone call. I don’t quite know how he got into Mr. X, but I had read Joshi’s biography and I had read the other one, too, the L. Sprague de Camp. And Joshi had unearthed a couple of people who were convinced that Lovecraft was writing nonfiction, and they wanted him to know that they understood that he was writing about reality, not something he’d made up. I liked that. And so I thought I would incorporate that. I also wanted all the main characters to be black, but never to say that. I wanted it to be clear in everything that they did, or many of the things that they did, and above all in the way people responded to them—so that at various times, officials say to one of the family, “I don’t want you people blah blah blah,” “When you people,” or when policemen are staring at my hero . . .

Ned Dunstan.

When police see Ned Dunstan walking with a white woman, they glare at him, and the woman says, “Why are they staring at us like this?” And he says, “Because of the way I am.” He says something like that, anyhow. There are a million hints. I didn’t know whether I’d say that at the end, whether I would make it clear at the end of the book, and I just decided not to. And so some people get it and some people don’t. That’s fine. I was thinking that African-Americans are our shadow, that they are inescapable and overlooked, but they must be recognized. They are intimately a part of us. I also wanted to get in all those instances of special powers and the occult. So the book has a lot of stuff in it including time travel, the Great God Pan, from Arthur Machen, just about, is a dissolute guitar player who spent all his time on a park bench. Goat—what’s his name? Goat Gridwell! That’s his name. I liked the idea of gods being dispossessed and kind of lounging around in the seedy places in America. And Edgerton is called Edgerton because it’s a funny place; there’s a slightly different reality there. I was very happy with the book and it was well reviewed, but along with The Hellfire Club, it seemed to me to be just on the verge of chaos. So it isn’t chaotic at all but it’s so tightly wound that it might be a little hard for some readers to take.

It strikes me that both The Hellfire Club and Mr. X show a concern with narrative—which is present in all of your work—but what fascinates me in these books is the way that the Pippin Little books and Lovecraft’s stories function as ways for the characters to understand the world. Mr. X apprehends his powers by thinking, “Oh! I’ve read these stories and they explain everything.” This, in turn, leads to his own tortured imitation of Lovecraft’s style in his writing, and to his framing his life in Lovecraftian terms. But then there’s a further level of irony. When we encounter the great progenitor, it’s Howard, i.e. the great Daddy is Howard Lovecraft, after all. This irony gives way in turn to another: this Howard is African-American, which for Lovecraft would have been a nightmare.

Unthinkable, right.

So there is Lovecraft at the back of all this, but in a different way than Mr. X has understood him to be.

That’s right. Henry James is also in that book, though he’s never named I don’t think. But there’s a famous Henry James story, “The Jolly Corner.”

Oh, I love that story.

Which I put in the Library of America Fantastic Tales. It just is a gorgeous story.

That was the story that turned me onto Henry James, believe it or not.

Oh, fabulous.

It’s a great story.

Yeah. I put three versions of that I think into Mr. X because I love that part of “The Jolly Corner” where the man returns from England, is in his ancestral house in New York, and begins to be aware that there’s probably somebody else in there with him, and there are hints of closed doors or the lights that go on and off or just the hint of movement. I was in love with that moment, and so I repeated it in Mr. X. Henry James and Lovecraft would make an odd pairing, but you can do it.

Oh no, you can. You absolutely can. Well look, Peter, I feel I should draw this to a close because I’ve kept you on the phone for a long, long time. So let me ask you two quick parting questions. If you could talk to your younger self, when you were starting writing, what would you say? What do you know now that you wish you knew then? And the follow-up to that question would be, obviously, some of the readers of this interview are going to be aspiring writers. What would you say to them?

What I would say to the young me is, “Don’t be a snob. Acknowledge that work done in the genre can be just as beautiful and literary as any book by your favorite mainstream writer, Updike, Roth, Bellow. If there has not yet been a Scott Fitzgerald of horror fiction, there ought to be one day. Do what you can and don’t worry so much. As long as you bring forth what is in you, everything is going to be all right. You’re going to be surprised.” I would also say, “Tell the truth most of the time. Just to other people. Don’t drink so much and when somebody starts bringing more exotic substances over to you, do what you know is right and say no.”

To young writers I would say—nobody now is as in love with drugs as we all were at one point, which did a little bit of good but way more damage. Steve King’s been very frank about that. But because most younger people now don’t do those drugs, the warning would be wasted or unnecessary. Instead I would say, “Well, of course read everything you can, just never stop reading. Read outside your field, or our field, read Jennifer Egan for God’s sake, read Lorrie Moore, a brilliant writer, read Lethem. And read Dickens and read George Elliot and figure out what is good about fiction, what you can do with it. It isn’t really about scaring people. There’s much more at stake.” Also I would say, “Be good to your colleagues. We are a kind of community and that is very valuable and very helpful. It’s the loneliest life we can imagine, apart from being a monk, I suppose, or a fire-watcher. It is a life in which you try to sustain yourself and pay for your life by sitting alone in a room for many, many hours every day. Colleagues, i.e. people who understand what you’re doing and understand what is required of you become very, very important. Of course you must always secretly laugh at the inept. Celebrate those who actually seem to be as good as you are or better than you are. You must always acknowledge that and not be jealous or envious. You must see what they are doing and value it very deeply.” And that’s about it, I guess.

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John Langan

John LanganJohn Langan’s latest collection of stories, Technicolor and Other Revelations, is forthcoming from Hippocampus Press. He is the author of a novel, House of Windows (Night Shade 2009), and a collection, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (Prime 2008). His short fiction has appeared in several of John Joseph Adams’s anthologies, including Wastelands, The Living Dead, and By Blood We Live. He’s also published stories in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and in other anthologies including Ellen Datlow’s Poe, Supernatural Noir, and Blood and Other Cravings, and Jack Dann and Nick Gevers’ Ghosts by Gaslight. With Paul Tremblay, he co-edited the anthology, Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters (Prime 2011). He teaches courses in creative writing and gothic fiction at SUNY New Paltz, and lives in upstate New York with his family.

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