Peter Straub—novelist, essayist, poet, short-story writer, editor, critic, soap-opera star, music connoisseur, eater of bone marrow—is a national treasure. If you have not read him (and you must), you have not experienced the terrible pleasure that comes from encountering an author who explores the dark caverns of the mind with lamps lit by blood.
Though I have known Peter most of my life through his books, we didn’t meet until 2007, when he approached me after a reading, grabbed me by the shoulders, drew me close, and said, “You have another Ben inside you. He has a buzz cut. He wears white T-shirts, black jeans, combat boots. He keeps a bowie knife duct-taped to his chest because he likes the feel of metal against his skin. Don’t ever let him die.” Which is probably the coolest thing anybody has ever said to me. We’ve been friends since.
He has won the Bram Stoker and World Fantasy awards. He has penned shelves’ worth of best sellers, including Ghost Story; Lost Boy, Lost Girl; and A Dark Matter. He is more than one of our country’s great writers—he is a fascinating, brilliant man, as you will gather from the shadow-soaked conversation that follows.
: Scare me.
: So you think it’s that easy, do you? Scare me, right, like I’m going to put on a pig mask and jump out of the bushes when you walk down the street at night. Of course, that might be pretty scary, but not, I think, for any of the obvious reasons.
: Do your worst.
: Okay, let’s try this:
Suppose you find yourself, without any preamble or explanation, in a horse-drawn carriage with three other passengers. Oh, you wonder, how did I get here? But you suppose, not unreasonably, that, very likely, you are dreaming. If not, everything is still all right, as you feel no sense of alarm, merely a mild curiosity as to your destination. Seated beside you is a tall, strikingly good-looking older man with longish white hair, a gleaming white shirt, a dark suit, a floppy black bow tie. There may be buckles on his black shoes or boots. The two women on the opposite bench may well be mother and daughter: separated in age by perhaps twenty-five to thirty years, both bearing artificial-looking “beauty marks” on the left side of their upper lips, and dressed alike in strangely dated, if not period, costumes with frills at their necks, long sleeves, dresses that come down past the tops of their buttoned boots. They, too, are quite attractive, good cheekbones, good eyes, and abundant dark hair, the details of which are lost in the general gloom of the carriage. Both women have high foreheads, the mother’s lightly scored with creases.
Oh, you think, this is a family, how nice.
You glance sideways at the husband and father. He smiles at you, as if he knows what you are thinking. The younger woman says, “Is it now? Is it now? Is it now?” Her voice sounds oddly mechanical.
Her mother shakes her head and smiles at you, as if asking for your tolerance.
“I want it to be now,” the daughter says, and her mother shushes her.
“Oh,” the daughter says, sounding sulky, and looks you straight in the eye—wham— straightforward, undisguised sexual interest, a look that says I want you.
Then she looks away, and the moment is gone, but you are left with an overwhelming sense of the younger woman’s body beneath her strange period clothing. To distract yourself, you look out of your window, and can see only a leaden gray. Then you realize that for the past five or ten minutes, you have heard nothing, not birdsong, not the creaking of the traces, not even the sound of the horses’ hooves. You cannot even be sure the carriage is moving forward.
I get it, you tell yourself, I’m in a movie, only I don’t know my lines, and I’m going to screw everything up. You turn to the man beside you, intending to tell him that you need more time, and find that he is smiling at you again, but differently, more genuinely.
“I need it to be now,” the daughter says, and you see her father’s hand flap up and down about an inch and a half.
You look back at the daughter, and something strange seems to be happening up in her hairline, a slow, funny widening-out like that of a splitting seam. Whatever this is, you absolutely know, it’s going to take a long time.
You are six years old and alone in the living room of your boyhood house. You are not supposed to be left alone for long, but here you are, not quite sure of what is happening. From somewhere distant in the house comes what could be either a low, quiet human moan or the sound of some electrical appliance. This sound, whatever it is, rather alarms you . . . it does not quite sound human; in fact, it sounds completely and in some sense terribly inhuman.
On a little table at one end of your living room sofa stands a little wooden table on which sit a lamp, an ashtray, and a telephone. When the inhuman sound cuts out, you know it came from nowhere distant but instead from one of these three objects on the little table. Much worse than that, it stopped because you had abruptly become aware of it. When you focus on the lamp, the ashtray gives a spectral shiver like that of something waking up. All of a sudden, really afraid, you look at the telephone, which appears to look back at you, full of some intention you have no way of decoding.
What would be frightening about me jumping out of the bush wearing a pig mask is not the sudden surprise, not me, and not the pig mask, but that the ordinary world had split open for a moment to reveal some possibility never previously considered.
: I’m officially creeped. Thank you.
And isn’t that a curious thing? My hunger and gratefulness for a scare? I remember very clearly the moment in elementary school when I withdrew from a library shelf the Universal book of monsters and cracked it open and found the Wolfman staring back at me, with his hoggish nose and shag-carpet fur and underbite of a snarl. I spent most of that night awake and calling for my parents. But the next day I visited the library and again pulled the book from the shelf.
When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time cowering in bed, the sheets wrapped around me like armor, a little breathing hole available for my mouth. I remember staying up most of one night, certain a shadow in the corner of my room might come alive at any moment and come rushing toward me.
I know I’m not alone, when I go to a horror movie and hear the screams and laughter all around me, when I walk the streets of Salem on Halloween with thousands of people dressed as vampires and ghouls, and even when my son says to me, “Pretend to be a monster,” and I savage my expression and make my hands into claws and he runs from me, squealing.
Why do I—why do people—dare the nightmare?
: I have been asked this question over and over for maybe thirty years, and by now it lacks a certain, shall we say, freshness. The most conventional answer is that the Wolfman and Dracula, et al., serve to render into once-removed, almost trivialized form the constant and difficult horrors of everyday life, from getting beaten by bullies in grade school to having someone very close to you be diagnosed with a stage-four cancer. You could say that these formalized representations of real-world terror contain a certain built-in social relevance, too: they are conversions into fictive form of racial or sexual anxieties; they express concerns like poverty and war and systemic failure, often changing focus decade by decade.
: You often see horror stories playing off cultural unease. From the Industrial Revolution comes Frankenstein. From the Red Scare comes Invasion of the Body Snatchers. From Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib come torture porn films like Hostel and Saw.
: Exactly. I would say, however, that human beings almost always require an education in loss, grief, fear, and pain, because at some point in their lives, almost everyone is going to experience each of these conditions. Without these conditions and experiences, one hardly has a life at all. We construct our souls very gradually, being deepened by loss and death and heartbreak. In general, everything is broken, and nothing’s going to be all right—whoops, I just quoted Mose Allison. In a world where everything is (or is soon going to be) broken, and nothing (or almost nothing) is really going to be all right, we human beings need practice in dealing with the conditions actually at hand, which, of course, differ vastly from the version of the near-at-hand offered up by most popular movies and novels.
Haven’t you, from time to time, seen a parent pushing an empty stroller alongside a two- or three-year old child pushing a toy stroller, also empty? This always strikes me as funny. By insisting on doing what the big people do, the child turns the parent’s helpfulness into an empty gesture. There they go down the street, parent and child, playing charades. Yet the child must learn to cope with the world by observant modeling, and the weary, unhappy parent consents to enact the charade. Late that night, perhaps, the parent will tip over the edge, lose control, and shake the screaming child into concussion. That big stroller’s going to be empty, all right, in the territory just created by the use of the word perhaps.
: Let’s talk about your own empty stroller. Childhood provides a lifetime of stories, gives rise to our sensibilities as writers. Tell us about the accident you were in as a child and how you think it contributed to your hard wiring.
: Oh, dear. It’s true, my childhood was, in a way, wildly colorful, though in another, more superficial way, it was utterly conventional. The accident you’re talking about was a catastrophic event shoveled under the carpet as soon as possible; in other words, when I had relearned how to walk and was able to rejoin my second-grade class at Webster State Elementary School. I had been half-killed, grievously broken in many crucial places, undergone a terrifying and ecstatic near-death experience; then endured what seemed an epoch of hospitals and operations and unrelenting, accumulating, increasing pain; gone through body casts, then a foot-to-hip leg cast, wheelchairs, crutches, absence of balance . . . and the advice offered me by the adult world was It’s all over, just forget about it.
These adults somehow failed to understand that the boy bearing my name was a different, infinitely more angry, disturbed, and troubled person than the boy known by that name in the past. Trouble was, they wanted that boy back, the seven-year-old continuation of the six-year-old, and they couldn’t get what they wanted. That six-year-old was dead; he had been run over by an old car, and he would never again be seen. Which is to say that the seven-year-old was no longer a child, his childhood lay in the same grave as his six-year-old self, and other children from that point on seemed like creatures of another species: baffling, boring, incredibly attractive, utterly without thought.
Yet that was not all. Two years before, in another neighborhood, the five-year-old boy with my name was undergoing completely typical, textbook-case sexual abuse at the hands of a neighbor, the father of two little girls. Having heard from my father that I liked to take off by myself—a five-year-old boy!—and go to the movies at the little theater around the corner and two streets down, this fellow offered to solve the problem and ensure my safety by accompanying me to the theater. Into the theater he took me, and to the last few rows, the rows where no one else ever sat, he led me, and when the lights went down and the music started up he put his hands on me and got me to do exactly what he wanted. How long this wretched business went on, I have no idea, but after a while, maybe a month or two, I refused to go to the movies anymore, and that was that. Then, I forced myself to forget everything that had happened in the last rows of the theater. I don’t now know exactly how it worked, but by an act of black, psychic, self-destructive magic I pushed every bit of that sordid, terrifying, deeply humiliating material into a little box, where it seethed, and pushed the box far down into unseen darkness.
Go on, Pete, my parents would have counseled, forget about it, so that was what I did. By means of a magical act I could never replicate now.
I could almost say, as a small child I was raped and murdered, because that statement is true, except that the two acts were not directly consecutive.
Whatever entered my mind had first to pass through these two smoky, evil-smelling conditions before it could be considered and classified.
: Jesus Christ.
: You should know that I’ve never said any of this stuff—about the child abuse—really anywhere. I put it in the fiction, and, the truth is, I still cannot directly remember, but I know damn well that’s what happened—I can remember making myself forget, is what I can remember. And I can remember it feeling like black magic, and that if I did it, I’d never be the same again. I remember knowing that at the age of five or six or whatever it was. That I would do permanent damage to myself if I forgot it, but I couldn’t bear it so I had to forget it.
: This is terrifying to hear, and you should know that if right up to the last minute you want to carve out this portion of our conversation, you need only let me know.
: Thank you for saying that. The reason I probably won’t is that the impulse has come over me, which has come over me from time to time. In the Locus interview I did I spoke of the matter very elusively and less directly than I have to you, but the impulse is really driven not to hide, to let people—I guess, I mean, my readers—let them see who I really am, the kind of history I really have, and that this kind of stuff formed me. It isn’t exactly confessional, but it has to do with sharing and with a desire for knowledge, and so I don’t have the feeling I’m hiding anything.
Because for a long time I had to hide that material—really, really, really hide it, and I hid it from myself very successfully, but like everything that you do that with, it bubbles up another way.
: As it bubbles up now, it feels so relevant because it’s foundational: it’s shaped so much of your work.
: Yeah, that’s right. I wrote this story “The Juniper Tree” one summer because I’d an irresistible impulse. I couldn’t not do it. The idea came to me when I was reading Marguerite Duras’s little novel The Lover, which is about a love affair between a teenage French girl and an older Chinese businessman in Vietnam, and the girl essentially has the power, and I thought, Oh, I could do something really dark and smelly with this stuff, and I came home—I was living alone in my house ’cause my wife and kids were living in Westport while carpenters were working on the house here—and I worked all day on that, and I revised it over and over; I was writing it by hand, and when I was done with it, I looked at it and I closed the bound journal I’d written in, and I just put it on a shelf and I didn’t look at it for at least a year. It just seemed too much, you know, like a loaded gun. And then later, I was asked to write a story for an anthology—and I thought, That’s a place to put the story; it’s the wrong place, but we’ll see what happens. It’s not a horror story per se at all, but it sure is horrible. So, I typed it up, I revised it, I revised it again, revised it and revised it, and I sent it off, and there it was. And years later, I was riding down Columbus Avenue in a taxicab with Gary Wolfe, and Gary turned to me and said, “Peter, did that thing in the movie theater actually happen?” and I said, “No.” The fact is it was too awful to bring up to the light at that moment.
And I feel as though it’s not going to damage me if people know this about me now. You know, it happened a long time ago—and I’ve certainly recovered from it. And I have made the most of it, besides that. You know, it was the engine for a lot of work that to me seems very, very powerful.
: All of this makes me think about what you said earlier—about the ordinary world splitting open . . .
: This strikes me as your aesthetic. You put a crack in the mirror, and we’re terrified and thrilled by the broken image, the ordinary made extraordinary.
: When I speak of a crack in the world, I mean a fissure from which unease can leak, because all of a sudden, things aren’t operating the way they’re supposed to operate, and when you see that in your own world, you can’t count on anything anymore, nothing works. It’d be exactly the same as if you were standing in the middle of your street, and you saw the houses begin to flare up and down and the buildings fall down. And you’d say, “Uh-oh, that—what is that? It’s an earthquake! Oh my God! [laughs] The world isn’t behaving the way it’s supposed to!” And you’d feel panic, dread, tension, fear.
Other times, when I speak of the world splitting open, I’m talking about an experience of very great joy, a kind of bliss that comes from a sense of being able, for a moment, to perceive the actual condition of the world, the actual nature of reality, which is seen in those moments as astonishingly blessed and radiant with intelligence and consciousness, so all of a sudden everything really is alive, it all thinks, it’s unimaginably gorgeous, and it’s so beautiful that it’s also very, very painful. That’s why I can never stay in that state. It doesn’t come to me very often. It used to come to me more when I was a kid, and all during my young manhood it’d visit me every five years, then every ten, but it hasn’t for a long time now. However, I remember it very, very precisely, and it’s . . . one is always grateful and one never thinks, Oh, this is a delusion. Instead, you think the rest of life is a delusion and this is reality.
: Sounds like the same heightened kind of knowing that can come when all guns are blazing at the keyboard, when you’re in a kind of trance, swept away by another world. I’m thinking about this division between the imaginative world and reality—and I’m thinking about the divisions, too, between the many Peter
: You’re a man with several doppelgängers. What draws you to the double?
: I always liked the idea, and I think it’s rooted in what we were talking about before, the sense—whether or not I understood it consciously—that I always had something to hide . . . I packed my pockets with secrets, and the point of having a secret is that you look as though you don’t, you know? [laughs]
It’s rooted in that sense of knowing something’s out of whack, being unable to identify it, and not wanting it to exist, so you pretend. I pretended rigorously with everything I had as though nothing was wrong, as though everything was fine. The fact that I talked to myself, the fact that I had crazy mood swings, that I occasionally did antisocial things, that I stuttered. I was one step away from lighting fires, you know. The fact that I gave signs of early disturbance. I didn’t want to interfere with the actual picture of me because I didn’t want to see myself as that at all. I wanted to be like all the other kids on the block. I didn’t do a great job of impersonating, and it wasn’t impersonation, but I did have friends all through my childhood. Sometimes I wondered just how good these friends were, since you could never talk to them, you know. [laughs] Children never really want to talk about anything, so I talked to their parents when I was child. I had a very good time talking to my friends’ parents, and they were surprised, but they didn’t mind, you know. It was like having a little old man in the room, I suppose.
Anyhow, that speaks of a kind of a split in the self that’s both conscious and not.
: Sure. And later, this split carried over into your work.
: For my reading, Nabokov was like swallowing a kind of poison pill, because I loved it so much, especially Pale Fire. There’s this man who gets everything wrong and lies about everything in his life—this, for some reason, led me to invent Putney Tyson Ridge, a critic that I used to make fun of the people who made fun of me. It was tremendous fun. I could write in that guy’s voice; I had made up a whole bunch of stuff about popular culture that made me very happy, and I began to use him as a reviewer’s name, just to amuse myself.
And Timothy Underhill appeared, of course, because of Koko. He was so admirable, and I hadn’t planned for this to happen, but during the writing of Koko, Timothy Underhill enacted some of the progress I was making myself as a writer, some of the effort and results I was getting, in the same way I was getting them. The more he wrote, the better he got, and the better he felt, the more territory he could encompass. So then, that automatically made him a kind of doppelgänger of mine, and eventually, I felt that he had more to do and he had more to say to me, so there he is all over The Throat, where he’s very useful, and he does things I could never dream of doing.
Occasionally, I had him do specific deeds that a man of my own age had done. This guy Tom Nolan had done three tours of Vietnam and he’d been injured very gravely, again and again, and when he came back from Vietnam, he was a little hard to deal with. He was a difficult character but a tremendously honest man who knew how to be as violent as a typhoon but never wanted to do so. I got two specific things from Tom Nolan. He once said to me, “I still have trouble walking across a field.” Oh my God. Whoa. And the other thing he told me was, some kid on Ninth Avenue came toward him and held out a knife and said, “You old fuck, give me all your money,” and Tom remembered what they used to do in training, and he grabbed the kid’s wrist with his right arm and grabbed his upper arm with his left arm, and broke the kid’s arm over his leg.
: You have these doppelgängers who give you entry to other worlds, other lives, and then you have these metafictional devices that call attention to the story being told, that play around with the idea of stories within stories, stories borrowing from other stories. You’re drawing from fairy tales in Shadowland
. You’re mimicking the style of
H. P. Lovecraft in Mr. X. I’ve seen firsthand your expansive library, and I’m amazed at how you’ve seemingly read everything—you’re citing John Ashbery one minute, Henry James the next. You’re the editor of so many anthologies. Does this move toward metafiction have anything to do with your awareness of your part in this larger conversation of storytellers?
: I hope so. It seemed inevitable that after a long time—after decades of doing what I call narrative heavy lifting, having one big slab of narrative slide up very neatly against another—that I would begin to think about why it was necessary to do that all the time and why it was so often assumed to have absolute authority.
Once I started to think that way, then I couldn’t help myself. I of course did keep putting stories into stories, but I also sometimes undermined the larger stories. The greatest example of that is Lost Boy, Lost Girl
, which is a completely subversive book, in a way. There’s scarcely a true word in it. It’s all wish, it’s all compensation, it’s all desire. And I felt that I did it very beautifully. A lot of people didn’t get it, but a lot of people liked the book.
: When joining this larger conversation of storytelling, you’re often tipping your hat to Lovecraft.
: Well, Lovecraft and Henry James for sure, and with Mr. X in particular, there are many references to Lovecraft, but the real guiding genius, if I can be this pretentious, is Henry James’s story “The Jolly Corner,” because there are, like, three different versions of “The Jolly Corner” in that book. Of course, I love “The Jolly Corner.” I think it’s amazingly profound, and it’s about a man meeting his other self at night in a mansion, and his other self is not appealing, his other self is scary, and really rich, too.
And Stephen King, of course, is part of the conversation in general. Very often, I was indelibly marked and inspired when I was much, much younger by The Shining
and Salem’s Lot
. I thought they were just amazingly powerful and finished books, great works of narrative art. When people started to criticize him, wag him as just being a populist, I objected. I said, “Okay, you be a populist like that, buddy. Let’s see if you can pull it off.” [laughs]
: And your admiration turned to friendship and to collaboration. I hear that the next installment of the Talisman series is about to get underway.
: It isn’t about to get underway, but it is ahead. We agreed to work on it about two years ago, and I haven’t even made a significant dent in the novel that I wanted to have done by now. I’m still making notes and trying to find the parts that are still underground. I gotta dig it up, or find it, anyhow. So, it’ll take a while, and I want it to be very ambitious, a very powerful book with a lot of inner gears, and that’s not easy to do.
: You’re sharpening your knife against those who call Stephen King a populist. So much time is spent splitting hairs over what it means to be a genre writer versus what it means to be a literary writer. You’re a poet, you’re a short-story writer, you’re a novelist, you’re an essayist, you’ve written crime novels, you’ve written horror novels, fairy tales, nonsupernatural stories about war, crime, troubled marriages. It seems like no matter what your medium and no matter what your subject, you have characters who are psychologically complex, you have sentences that are rich and lyrical, you have intricately structured plots—and I’m wondering how you feel about all this squabbling, if you find it tiresome, ridiculous, offensive, what?
: [laughs] Well, you put that kind of question in the most positive possible way for me, and I must say I love the way you’ve been reading my work. That’s the ideal way I wish it to be seen. A lot of people don’t see it that way, and they have a right to whatever they think. Probably they like a lot of stuff I would dislike. It’s a really complex issue, though, at base. I used to think that if you wrote a novel about supernatural events and made it suspenseful and tense with high stakes, and if you wrote it as though it were pure realistic Updikian, Rothian, Flaubertian fiction, that you would be able to prove that everything is the same, that a novel could be both horror and art.
Very few people agreed with me at this point—I’m talking about the early eighties. I spent a lot of time trying to make the point that the distinction between what people on my side of the fence call “mainstream,” which is a bit derogatory, really, and what people on the other side of the fence call “crime” or “horror,” that the distinction was meaningless, that everything must be judged case by case. If you read The Long Goodbye
and don’t understand it as a world-class American novel, you have missed the boat. [laughs] I still think that.
But by now, I’ve been beaten down quite a bit, and I understand that one can never change people’s minds. Basically, the vast majority of readers are going to say, “Okay, well, I like The Corrections
because that’s a real novel, and I got a kind of a kick out of . . .” (let’s say something of mine) “. . . The Throat, but you know, it was pretty lightweight.” Or, “It was very good for a book like that.” People will never make that final erasure.
Well, I myself have been working pretty doggedly toward exactly that erasure. I keep talking about it in these anthologies I’ve been doing. In the introductions to them, I try to make my weary little point over and over, and the world itself seems to be chiming in—I mean you and Kelly Link and . . .
: Dan Chaon . . .
: Dan Chaon for sure . . . People like Dan and yourself act as though there is no real boundary between stories of different kinds. In the nineteenth century, when Hawthorne was writing one kind of story, did he stop and say to himself, “Well, of course, this is a little cheaper and more degraded than my ordinary work, but I’ll rush through it anyhow”? I really sort of doubt it. The matter is confused by those people—and they are numerous and extremely worthwhile—who want to do nothing but write genre fiction.
They want to write the sort of books they’ve enjoyed all their lives. They want to write novels like Rex Stout, novels like Chandler. They want to do Lovecraft-like stories. And they very happily go out and do those things one after another; the books repeat the same effects, they have the same kind of structures, the same consolations and satisfactions, and people buy them for that reason.
If you buy a Yum Yum or whatever, the pussycat detective novels, I’m pretty sure you know exactly what you’re going to get and when you get it you purr. That’s what you want. You like the flavor. I like the flavor of Rex Stout and I’ve had times where I’ve read three or four in a row. I did the same thing with Ed McBain a little later in my life. I read a whole bunch of those 87th Precinct novels because I really like them. They’re wonderfully written, in an understated way, and they just gave you the satisfaction that comes from repeating gestures in a reliable and not-too-clichéd form. So, if that’s what people want to do, God bless ’em, and they’ll sell a lot of books. I think there’s certainly another way to go.
: Among the writers you admire most, those who are kicking down doors and not acknowledging boundaries, if you could make a demand, not a suggestion, if you could strap everybody into a chair and staple open their eyelids, what books would you make sure they’d read, what writers?
: [long laugh] I would say, begin by reading Kelly Link’s first two books, for sure Magic for Beginners
. Be sure to read Brian Evenson’s The Open Curtain
: Definitely The Open Curtain
. I don’t think I’ve ever said, “What the fuck?” so many times when reading a book.
: Oh boy, oh boy, what a great book. And I didn’t mention Dan Chaon yet. Await Your Reply
is a really stunning book, but even more so, or perhaps equally, his collection of stories Among the Missing
. That’s a collection of stories I would very cheerfully call horror stories, and Chaon himself was always a breath away from doing that.
: Sometimes approaching horror more as an emotion than as a genre. He definitely occupies that black territory.
: Which is a very rich territory indeed