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Peter Straub, 1943–2022

Farewell to another of the Big Six novelists from the Golden Age of American horror fiction.

· 13 min read
Peter Straub, 1943–2022
American horror writer Peter Straub in London UK, 2011. Alamy

Peter Straub, who died this week at the age of 79, was a member of perhaps the greatest generation of American horror writers. He was born in 1943, just one year after the birth of Michael Crichton, who gave us techno-horrors such as Jurassic Park and Westworld and The Andromeda Strain, just two years after the birth of Anne Rice, who gave us The Vampire Lestat, and three years after the birth of Thomas Harris, who gave us Hannibal Lecter. The next few years would bring the births of Dean Koontz (1945) and Stephen King (1947). By themselves, those Big Six would produce enough great horror novels to give the US a solid claim on being the world’s best source of 20th-century scary stories.

And just beneath that cohort came a host of talented but slightly less famous writers, people such as Robert McCammon (They Thirst, Swan Song), Charles L. Grant (the Oxrun Station series) Jack Ketchum (Off Season, The Girl Next Door), Dan Simmons (Summer of Night, A Winter Haunting, The Terror), Michael McDowell (the Blackwater series), Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (the Sisters of the Night series), Tabitha King (Small World, Caretakers), Chet Williamson (Ash Wednesday, Soulstorm), Whitley Streiber (The Wolfen, The Hunger), Thomas Monteleone (Night Train, Night Things), F. Paul Wilson (The Keep, The Tomb), and many others (a good guide to the works of these lesser-known writers is Grady Hendrix’s 2017 book Paperbacks From Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction).

In many ways, Straub was the least typical member of the Big Six. All of the others had college educations, but only Straub (Columbia) and Crichton (Harvard) were Ivy Leaguers. Most produced dozens of fiction titles, but Straub produced only about 12 standalone novels, a trilogy, and a two-novel series in collaboration with King. Among the Big Six, only Thomas Harris would produce fewer books (six, although he’s still alive and, presumably, still writing). Most of the others produced at least one iconic fictional character. King has given us Pennywise the Clown, the Gunslinger, Jack Torrance, Annie Wilkes, and many others. Koontz has given us Odd Thomas. Rice, as noted, gave us Lestat (as well as Memnoch the Devil, Ramses the Damned, Vittorio the Vampire, and a few others). Harris gave us not just Hannibal Lecter but also Clarice Starling and Will Graham. Crichton’s most famous characters are non-humans: velociraptors, T-Rexes, androids in an Old West theme park, and so forth.

Straub’s novels, on the other hand, tended to be ensemble stories, filled with interesting characters but not iconic ones, perhaps because they are all too human. Among the Big Six, only Koontz has had less success with Hollywood (several of his works have been adapted for film but not memorably). John Irvin’s 1981 film Ghost Story was based upon Straub’s 1979 book of the same name, and while the film was successful, it didn’t achieve the blockbuster status of Jurassic Park, The Silence of the Lambs, or Interview with the Vampire nor the cult status of Misery or The Shining. Straub’s first horror novel, Julia, was the source of the 1977 film The Haunting of Julia, which starred Mia Farrow but attracted little attention.

What’s more, Straub was not as acquainted with the bestseller lists as were the other five. His only real runaway bestseller was The Talisman, written in collaboration with Stephen King, and the bestselling American novel of 1984. Rice, Koontz, Crichton, Harris, and especially King, all hit the fiction bestseller list on numerous occasions. Wikipedia lists Koontz as the 16th bestselling fiction writer of all time. King is number 22 on the list; Rice is 56; Crichton is 59. Thomas Harris’s books have sold more than 50 million copies, according to the New York Times. That’s not nearly enough to land him among Wikipedia’s bestselling fiction writers (to make that list, your books need to have sold at least 100 million copies), but it appears to be more than Peter Straub’s books have sold (exact figures for Straub are hard to come by, but sales of The Talisman probably had a lot to do with the popularity of his co-author).

Straub was born on March 2nd, 1943, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At the age of seven, he was struck by a car and nearly died. The incident confronted him with the fact of his own mortality much sooner than most American children. He earned a BA in English from the University of Wisconsin, and a master’s degree from Columbia. His literary idols were Henry James and D.H. Lawrence. After leaving school he began teaching English but didn’t like it much and decided that writing novels would be his ticket out of academia. His first two novels—Marriages (1973) and Under Venus (1974)—were mainstream works that didn’t sell very well.

Determined to avoid a nine-to-five job, Straub took a look at the bestsellers of the era and decided that he would give writing horror novels a go. Ira Levin’s 1968 bestseller Rosemary’s Baby had kicked off a vogue for supernatural thrillers that only grew stronger in the 1970s with the success of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Thomas Tryon’s The Other, and of course Stephen King’s early works: Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Dead Zone, and so on. Straub published his first supernatural thriller, Julia, in 1975, one year after the publication of Carrie. New Zealand novelist Dorothy Eden, a master of gothic horror, dubbed it “Unputdownable.” Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, called it, “haunting, in every sense of the word.” Library Journal compared it favorably with Rosemary’s Baby (both books were turned into films starring Mia Farrow). A promising new American horror novelist had arrived.

Two years later, in 1977, Straub followed Julia with If You Could See Me Now, another supernatural chiller. The blurb provided by King read, “During the last forty pages my hands were as good as nailed to the book.” But it was his next novel, 1979’s Ghost Story, that finally landed him on the New York Times bestseller list. Published in January of that year, it took a while to gain traction. But by April 29th, good reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations had made the book the 12th bestselling novel in America. Straub shared space on the list with some of the heaviest hitters in American fiction: Robert Ludlum, Joseph Heller, James Michener, Herman Wouk, Bernard Malamud, and John Cheever. By May 20th, the book had climbed into ninth place on the list, making it officially one of the 10 bestselling books in America. The book eventually rose as high as the seventh spot, and remained on the list for a total of 19 weeks. It dropped off the list the same week that King’s novel The Dead Zone debuted there. That wouldn’t be the last time that Straub was eclipsed by his good friend.

I couldn’t afford hardback books back in 1979, so I didn’t really become aware of Straub’s novel until the winter of 1981, when a new paperback edition was published to tie in with the release of the upcoming film adaptation. When my wife and I married in 1980, I became a stepfather to her two daughters, who were eight and 12 at the time. The economy was a mess in the early 1980s, and within a year we would lose our modest Sacramento home to foreclosure. Later, we would declare bankruptcy. In Danse Macabre, his 1981 non-fiction survey of the horror field, Stephen King was probably the only cultural critic who connected the wild success of the 1979 horror film The Amityville Horror with the foreclosure crisis sweeping the country. High interest and unemployment rates were making it difficult for many Americans, my wife and me included, to hang on to their homes. Of The Amityville Horror, King writes:

The picture’s subtext is one of economic unease, and this is a theme that director Stuart Rosenberg plays on constantly. In terms of the times—18-percent inflation, mortgage rates out of sight, gasoline selling at a cool dollar forty a gallon—The Amityville Horror, like The Exorcist, could not have come along at a more opportune moment. … The movie might as well have been subtitled The Horror of the Shrinking Bank Account.

That could also have been the title of a film about my own household. My wife, who worked as a Sacramento escrow officer, lost her job, and the only other escrow job she could find was in Truckee, a small Californian town in the Sierra Mountains, about 5,817 feet above sea level. It is the kind of small wintry place you see in contemporary Christmas films, except that most of the residents were members of the lower working class. They earned extra money during the winter putting snow chains on car tires for drivers trying to make it over the summit, or working weekends at the bars and restaurants that catered to deep-pocketed Bay Area visitors, sometimes selling them drugs.

And so, the four of us moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Truckee, alongside Interstate 80. It was anything but a fairytale locale. One Saturday in December 1981, a few days before our Sacramento house was scheduled to be taken away by the bank, I drove back to Sacramento with my now-13-year-old stepdaughter Andrea, to collect as many of our remaining belongings as we could fit into our battered old Toyota pickup truck. On our way back up Interstate 80, just above the town of Auburn, the pickup truck blew a tire and began spinning uncontrollably on the icy roadway. Miraculously, it came to a stop on a gravel median between the east- and westbound lanes of traffic.

A kindly middle-aged couple who had seen the accident stopped and asked if they could help us. I assured them that a California Highway Patrolman would probably come along soon and then he could call a repair truck for me (I didn’t have a spare tire). The wife told me that she and her husband were driving to Reno and would be happy to take Andrea with them and drop her off at our apartment as they passed through Truckee. I was still fairly new to the parenthood thing and, still dazed by the accident, I foolishly instructed Andrea to get into the car. She obliged, and off they went. As I watched the car disappear up the mountain highway, it occurred to me that I probably should have asked for a phone number, a name, perhaps an address, or at least noted the license plate number. I had done none of these things. It was a week or two before Christmas, and I had just put my 13-year-old stepchild into a vehicle with two total strangers who were bound for Reno, a land of 24-hour gambling and legalized prostitution. I don’t remember ever being more frightened.

Within about 20 minutes, a CHP officer stopped to help me. He blocked eastbound traffic for me while I drove my wounded pickup off the median and over to a much wider shoulder on the other side of the road. The officer called a tow truck for me and then left. I didn’t mention Andrea. What could I tell him? I had to stay with the pickup, so I couldn’t wander off to look for a telephone and alert my wife to the fact that I had given away her elder child. Eventually, a repair vehicle arrived and replaced my flat tire. About 90 minutes after sending Andrea off to her doom, I was back on the road to Truckee. An hour later, I arrived at our new apartment to find Andrea, alive and well, watching TV on the living-room sofa. Her mother and younger sister had been running errands all day and hadn’t come home yet. No one but Andrea and I knew about the horrible decision I had made earlier on the side of Interstate 80. I begged her not to mention it to her mother. She laughed and agreed. But the incident rattled me and I had nightmares about it for days.

Then, in a Truckee supermarket, a few days before Christmas, I saw a paperback copy of Straub’s Ghost Story. I purchased it and began reading it that night. The story takes place in a small New England town during the dead of a very cold and snowy winter. As I sat in bed reading Straub’s novel, the wind was howling outside my window and snow was falling heavily. Soon, I wasn’t just reading Straub’s story, I felt like I was inside it. It took me about a week to read, during which I largely forgot about how close I had come to never seeing my stepdaughter again. That, I think, is why we read horror novels in the first place; not to revel in the misfortunes of others, but to escape our own nightmares for a while by immersing ourselves in fictional nightmares that, one hopes, are far worse than our own. Straub’s book provided me with one of the greatest escapes of my reading life.

Alas, my love affair with Straub wouldn’t last. After finishing Ghost Story, I got hold of used copies of Julia and If You Could See Me Now. I enjoyed them both, though they were not as immersive. The passing years brought us Shadowland, an impressive achievement but way too long and discursive for me. One of the reader reviews at Amazon notes:

I had the assumption that since the book was overly long that it would be as compelling to read as ‘Ghost Story’ had been. I was sadly mistaken. I would take a pass on this one because it's just not worth the unresolved plot holes and leaves the reader feeling unsatisfied and confused. If you are hell-bent on reading a Straub novel, you may want to read or revisit the superb, ‘Ghost Story.’

I didn’t write that review but I share the sentiment. Next came Floating Dragon, another very long and over-stuffed fantasy/horror novel. It’s been so long since I read it that I don’t have any access to my own notes on it, but if I recall the experience correctly, this Amazon reader seems to sum it up well:

It reads a bit like Alice and Wonderland in that bizarre and treacherous happenings occur to not one person who fell down a rabbit hole, but to a whole town. Imagine throwing the kitchen sink of terror filled threats—bats, giant vicious dogs, dragons, zombies, worms, spiders, madmen, fires, earthquakes, swarms of flies, you name it—and wrap that up in 600 pages. I guess it may be some peoples cup of tea, but not mine.

I might have given up on Straub at that point, but his next novel was 1984’s The Talisman, co-written with King, another favorite writer of mine at that time. Alas, it was the first novel to bear King’s name that I didn’t manage to finish. After that came Straub’s so-called “Blue Rose Trilogy”—Koko (1988), Mystery (1990), and The Throat (1993)—that ran to a combined total of over 1,800 pages. I made it about a third of the way through Koko. That was the last Straub novel I attempted.

In his interviews and essays, I often got the feeling that Straub resented being dubbed a horror novelist. This wasn’t an uncommon attitude among the Big Six. Koontz has often insisted that he writes suspense novels or thrillers, not horror novels. Anne Rice maintained that she wrote historical novels with supernatural elements. King (and to a certain extent Crichton) pushed back against the label by writing well in a lot of different genres: fantasy, crime, mystery, science-fiction, Western, and even mainstream. But Straub seemed to think he was too good for the horror label. Unlike King, who happily lists genre writers such as Ira Levin and Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont among his inspirations, Straub preferred to see himself as an heir to the likes of Henry James and D. H. Lawrence. In 1979, he told the New York Times, “I wanted to take the [horror] genre and pull it upstairs a little bit. Not exactly transcend the genre, but make a little more of the material than has been made of it in the recent past.”

Prior to the 1980s, most popular American horror novels weren’t especially long. Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives runs to only about 185 pages. William Goldman’s Magic is only about 250 pages long. Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is about 175 pages long. Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers clocked in at under 200 pages. King’s debut novel, Carrie, was only 199 pages in hardback. But the one-two punch of Stephen King’s The Stand (published in 1978) and Straub’s Ghost Story (1979), both of which were quite hefty (and The Stand has continued to expand in subsequent editions) seemed to create an impression in many readers’ minds that fatter horror novels were better horror novels. Soon we were getting tomes such as Robert McCammon’s Swan Song (956 pages) and Dan Simmons’s Carrion Comfort (884 pages), not to mention King’s own It (1,116 pages) and The Tommyknockers (747 pages).

Many of these massive works were simply recursive, repeating the same motif over and over again. If it was a story about vampires, then we got repeated episodes of vampire attacks. If it was a story about the children of a small town turning evil, then we got lots and lots of episodes in which children do vile things. For the most part, the novels got heavier only because the novelists were recycling the same tricks over and over again.

But Peter Straub was largely an exception to this rule. His later novels didn’t grow bigger by repetition but rather by accretion. Though I didn’t care for anything he published after Ghost Story, I have to concede that he charted his own course as a horror novelist. He seemed to bring a Henry Jamesian inclusiveness to his literary projects. Rather than give the reader endless scenes of attacking bats, he gave the reader, as the anonymous Amazon reviewer noted above, “bats, giant vicious dogs, dragons, zombies, worms, spiders, madmen, fires, earthquakes, swarms of flies, you name it.” I found it all exhausting, but it was the mark of a writer who was never eager to repeat himself. After the success of Ghost Story, he probably could have written nothing but capacious and atmospheric New England ghost tales for the rest of his life and still have been a huge bestseller. It’s to his credit that he never even attempted that route. He tried to make each book unique.

I don’t have a great deal of confidence that posterity will treat him well. To prepare for this story, I traveled to nearly every bookstore in Sacramento in search of his books. None of the new bookstores I visited contained a single one of his titles. The Avid Reader, my neighborhood bookstore, carried four titles by his daughter Emma Straub, but not a single Peter Straub book. I had better luck at my local used bookstores. I visited four of them and purchased 13 books, including both Julia and If You Could See Me Now. I had expected that I would find nothing but endless used copies of Ghost Story. To my surprise, I found none. Other than his first two mainstream novels, Ghost Story was pretty much the only Straub book I couldn’t locate. This may be because the book is so beloved that no one wants to part with it. But the book’s complete absence from local new bookstores suggests that there just isn’t much demand for it anymore. If so, it’s a shame. I drifted away from Straub’s work years ago, but I’ve never forgotten how, one frightening winter, Peter Straub’s Ghost Story helped me to forget my own nightmares.

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