AN INTERVIEW WITH PETER STRAUB

By Michael Berry for Horror Magazine


Peter Straub Headshot

HORROR: Your latest book, The Throat, is a culmination of plots and themes you've been toying with since the mid-Eighties, tying together elements of Koko, Mystery and some of the stories in Houses Without Doors. When you published the short story "Blue Rose" in Dennis Etchison's Cutting Edge anthology back in 1985, did you suspect that you would eventually write an odd sort of thriller trilogy centered around your fictional Blue Rose Murders?

STRAUB: I would never have thought of the idea of doing a series. The whole idea would have turned me off. That's why the series isn't really a series. It's an accidental, inadvertant one, but it resolves itself in a way that pleases me a lot.

The origin of "Blue Rose" is a moment I remember very, very clearly. I had taken about a year off on purpose. I had done Floating Dragon and then The Talisman with Steve [King], and it seemed to me that I was sort of burned out. So I didn't do anything for about a year.

One day I was sitting on my lawn in Westport, Connecticut and reading a book called The Freudian Fallacy. It wasn't a very good book. It attempted to discredit Freud on neurological grounds. There was a sentence in one chapter that said that the physical effects of epilepsy on the brain were very similar to the effects of hypnosis. And a little spark jumped in my brain. I thought, "Epilepsy equals hypnosis. Maybe you could induce epilepsy through hypnosis, or maybe someone killed in a hypnotic state might be thought to have died during an epileptic fit."

This triggered something in me. I jumped up off the lawnchair and went up to my office and made some notes. Two days later, I started to plan "Blue Rose." I wanted to figure out what combination of forces and events could make somebody be the type of person that other people would describe as a monster.

I had just read in the New York Review of Books an article about some non-fiction work that said that many seriously disturbed people and murderers come from a family in which the mother imagines herself to be of a higher social class than the father. A good deal of physical abuse is also generally a part of this picture. So I sort of had the Beevers family sketched in for me. I knew I was going to write Koko and I knew there was a character in it named Harry Beevers who was an extremely nasty piece of work. So I put old Harry in the story.

I was entranced with the story When I was writing it, I remember thinking, "God, I love this story!" I think that was because I was really writing again after not having written for some time.

The whole point of "Blue Rose" is to lead the reader, step by step, up to a point where he has to look unblinkingly upon an act of real savagery. He has to just stare at it, witness it, experience it. I figured out a way to end the story and I was very pleased with it.

I had also learned during the writing of that story a lot more than I'd known before about re-writing. Since the point was to lead the reader to that point where he had to look at something he probably didn't want to see, the writing had to be perfectly transparent. Otherwise, there would have be "writing" between the reader and the event.

This was the first time I had ever tried to have no style, or a style so good it couldn't be seen. This was immensely valuable for me. It gave me an aesthetic I hadn't had before, an aesthetic of clarity. I had to work much harder over each sentence. In all my earlier books, I just wrote, opened my mouth and let the notes come out. I was generally pleased. I rewrote some, but I never tried to write plainly.

This time I was trying to write very plainly, with the right words in the right order, with the dialogue as full of pungency as I could get it, with the whole ethos that the prose should be unobtrusive, so as not to mess with the effect. That stood me in very good stead when I finally got to Koko, because I was prepared to re-write extensively.

One of my models for this was very early Hemingway, the Heming way of In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises. I don't write anything like him, but in his very early works there's a sense of a style like transparent water, that you can see through and that allows every detail to emerge fully and clearly, in fact glowing a little bit because of the precision with which it's seen. That's a tremendously moving idea for me, because it ramifies itself in a thousand interesting directions. It's also good in itself. It denotes a sense of morality to let things speak for themselves.

HORROR: Prior to "Blue Rose," you hadn't published much short fiction. Why not?

STRAUB: At other times in my life I'd had ideas for short stories, but I never wrote them, because I had the complete idea and it seemed to me too easy and not worthwhile. What I really want is an unknowing, a process of discovery. If I can think of an idea and it's completely formed with a beginning, middle, and ending, then it seems worthless. I won't get any thing out of it, and the world doesn't need another mediocre story.

The idea for The Juniper Tree also jumped out of me in the middle of writing Koko. I was staying in New York by myself while carpenters were putting bookshelves in my office. I had read the Marguerite Duras novel, The Lover, which is essentially about the way a seemingly powerless sexual object really has more power than her abuser, the man she's sleeping with. It struck me that I could do the same thing with a man and a little boy, and have the little boy's role be more ambiguous than it's normally thought to be.

That's how I wrote the first two stories I had written in a very long time, because something presented itself with enough force to almost knock me off my chair. It was not possible not to write them.

HORROR: Why did you eventually attribute these stories to Tim Underhill, the secret hero of Koko and the protagonist of The Throat?

STRAUB: As I got to know more about the character, those events seemed to part of his moral world, part of his own process of exploration. This may just be a way of deflecting all that experience from myself, but I know I can't do that. The reason I write about these things is because that kind of experience is mine, I mean, the Tim Underhill kind of emotional experience.

Also, I just like the idea. I thought it was "cute" for someone else to have written these things I had written. To me, Tim Underhill has a certain amount of reality, and I quite like him. I probably like him more than he likes me.

HORROR Was Tim Underhill the starting point for Koko?

STRAUB: No. The origin of that book was the idea of men having to return to the Far East to deal with one of their old comrades who has gone seriously off the track. Tim Underhill appeared with rest of them, when I was thinking very hard about the book and trying to imagine the men who would undertake that task. In most cases, once I thought of their names, I could see the whole man. Wlth Tim Underhill, I couldn't. I really only knew what he was like when Michael Poole finally caught up with him in Bangkok. He looked like a wraith, a tall, skinny, grey-haired guy with a beard and ponytail. I knew as soon as I saw him that he was a tremendously decent human being, that he lived a moral life, despite its excesses. In the end, I let him talk. I gave him the key, and said, "Go through the door."

HORROR When you finished Koko, did you suspect you would ever use Underhill again?

STRAUB: No, but when I did finally consider it, I was really, really happy. Because I felt such affection for him, and because through him, I could easily get to the sort of emotional world he represents, a world filled with devastation and hints of glory.

HORROR: What started you writing Mystery?

STRAUB: The novel I set out to write was very different from the one I did write. I went to a resort to dream up the story for the book after Koko. I had done some of the best initial work for Koko at a similar place, so l thought, I won't mess with a formula that works. What I came up with was a kind of Daphne Du Maurier story. I have a great fondness for some of her books, and especially like their readability. The book was to be called Family Romance. It was about two brothers, one raised in comparative splendor, the other in absolute deprivation. The first is raised by an alcoholic mother and a lousy father, but treated OK. The other is treated brutally by people hired to keep him locked in a shed out behind their house. This second brother is a very angry fellow, and one dy he gets out of that shed and starts looking for the people who did him wrong.

I started writing the book, and the best parts were the parts about that kid in the shed. They were really, really hot. And then the other main character, Tom Pasmore, went to visit the old detective, Lamont Von Heilitz. As soon I saw Von Heilitz, he stood up and said, "I am the center of this book! This book is about me!"

I tried to keep the two halves of the brothers' story in synch, but Von Heilitz didn't want to to talk about that. He wanted to talk about a murder at Eagle Lake in Wisconsin in 1929. He talked about it and talked about it. So then I had to follow him.

I loved the whole idea of a Sherlock Holmes-like character, because I had been entranced by Doyle's stories as a kid. The more I thought about it, the more it struck me that nothing is accidental, that there's a reason for everything. Therefore there's a reason why a person would become a great detective. And there can only be one reason: unknown to him, there is something he must find out about himself.

This sounded worthwhile to me. The whole book suddenly wheels around to certain overwhelming revelations directly concerned with the main character. The Throat, by no accident, does exactly the same thing. It wheels around to a gigantic understanding, and then another, and then another at the end. This pleases me.

HORROR: Have you always been a mystery fan?

STRAUB: I read tons of mysteries. I think Raymond Chandler was a great artist. The Long Goodbye is a masterpiece of our literature. I'm probably the only guy who sees Henry James and Chandler on an equal plane.

Of course, I don't see Henry James as most people see him. I don't see him as this orotund, foolishly verbose prig that he's sometimes portrayed as. I see hlm as a really modern, wise and psychologically knowledgeable character.

HORROR: What inspired The Throat?

STRAUB: I came to write The Throat be cause I realized that there had been these Blue Rose murders and that, while we knew who didn't do them, we still didn't know who did. I was in terested enough to think I could get somewhere if I began by pushing away at the question of who the real murderer had been. A very quick way to invoke that question would be to have the murders start again.

That gave me the opportunity to wake up Tim Underhill from the dream world and bring him back into my real world, so l could spend more time with him and enjoy myself in the way you do when you see someone you've been missing. It sounds a little like The Twilight Zone, but the people a writer makes up have a great deal of reality to their inventor.

Once again, I started off with a premise that wasn't at all like the book turned out to be. I wrote very slowly for about a year. I included two long, third-person sections about the childhood of Fielding Bandolier, because I wanted to see what forces could produce a serial killer. I wanted to see it from the inside. I wanted to be present at the creation, so l could look with pitying eyes at a person being gradually but surely transformed into a killing machine. It struck me that evil is not born into the world but that it's created by brutality, ignorance and stupidity.

I wrote these passages that were really powerful. They're very much like those about the boy in the shed that I had to take out of Mystery. I eventually had to take them out of this book, too, because they slowed it down and they were in the wrong voice. I'm pleased to say that those two chapters are now joined together in one novella. It's called "Fee," and it will be in Tom Monteleone's Borderlands IV anthology.

Anyhow, I had Tim Underhill describing his life in the Army and how he met John Ransom. Then we had Fee Bandolier. Then a little more about Underhill, a little more Fee. It seemed to me that what I was doing was writing an interestingly structured book in which the different parts didn't connect. I thought my publisher might not be too happy with this and that maybe that this would be the first time in my life when I would write the novel I had been afraid of writing all along -- that is, one without an actual story. But it might be interesting anyway.

So I wrote along and wrote along. Tim Underhill is driving around Millhaven, going from pillar to post, searching for one answer after another. Tom Pasmore is working away on his computer, finding out who owns various bits of real estate. It was like Ross McDonald or something but very compelling.

So there went my wonderful artistic novel made of independent and only tangentially related bits. I was writing something far more conservative and traditional, but which went the way my talent naturally goes, toward complicated but coherent stories of some length.

Once I saw that happening I knew I was really in for it. I really had to solve the Blue Rose Murders and I would have to find out who killed the wife of Underhill's friend. That meant I was in for as long, long book. It not only had to do those things, but the book also had to swallow Koko and Mystery. The Throat had to digest them and exist around them like an onion.

When I finished the typescript, it was 1,400 pages long. I spent a month editing it. I turned every page into a wiring diagram, with arrows and squiggles and Xs. Every single page was almost unreadable. I put those changes into the machine and what came out of the printer was a 900 page manuscript. It was still long, but it was as short and as tight as I could get It.

HORROR: During the writing of The Throat, were you ever concerned that the market was becoming saturated with serial killer novels?

STRAUB: Yeah, I was. At the time I started, there were hardly any. By the time I finished, there were slews of them.

What seemed to me to be different about what I was doing was that, even though I took out the close-up chapters about Fielding Bandolier's childhood, I was still looking at the issue from the inside out, rather than from the point-of-view of a cop trying to nail someone he perceives as a beast, a ravening, ferocious animal. Tim Underhill feels love for little Fee Bandolier and sees him all over the place, because he himself is little Fee Bandolier. There's so much more emotional weight and gravity here, so much more actual pain, that The Throat isn't like any of those other books.

HORROR: There's a fine line between being a victim and becoming a victimizer. Did you ever worry about how much sympathy should be given to a serial killer?

STRAUB: I think I did probably fret about that. But because my focus was so much on the actual love I felt for the child, and the sorrow I felt, I thought I was doing it all right. But there comes a point when that child is not a child, when he is a killing machine. And I could never find the division, where we lost the innocence and had a murderer instead of a victim. That move from one to the other always bothered me, but there's no way around it.

HORROR: In Mystery, Tom Pasmore is nearly killed in an auto accident. In The Throat, Tim Underhill announces that, no, it was he who was run over after witnessing his sister's murder, not Tom. But here in the real world, you yourself were badly injured in a childhood accident. Can you tell me how that incident shaped your life and writing?

STRAUB: It was a really transforming experience. The person that had my name before that incident was very different from the one who emerged out of the hospital later and spent a year recovering from his wounds. Coming to terms with that, and with what could be termed a classic near-death experience, was one of the great chores of my life. Once I began to understand the depth of this in my own ife, I had to write about it. And in the end, it taught me all, everything I know that's worth anything.

HORROR For example?

STRAUB: It taught me that the world is not benign, that the world doesn't care what happens to you. It taught me that great, great pain is survivable and contains within it something that isn't pain. I'm speaking mostly about emotional pain, because physical pain blots out everything else. Things of overwhelming, almost unbearable power, in some way connect to joy, beause they remind you that things can e overwhelming, that majesty is majesty, whether it's awful or good. Real grief and real joy co-exist simply because you discover you have them all inside you.

This is a complicated message, but it makes sense out of life. It makes sense in a way other ways of coping do not, like "God has told me something" or "I've found Jesus." I'm not tring to denigrate those, because they are very typical human responses to events of too much magnitude. If you stick with the unbearableness, I think you get to a more profound place.

I think of that amazing photograph from Vietnam, of that naked little girl running down that road, her face a tragedy mask. That photograph announces that ultimate things are right overhead. There's something powerful and meaningful chasing that girl -- and chasing us -- that we can witness and observe.

HORROR: As someone who didn't fight in the war, were you at all concerned about writing about the Vietnam experience?

STRAUB: It was rash to try to do it. But what we've been talking about now is the only reason I thought I could. I came to that realization through the accident of having met three or four combat veterans and recognizing within them the same thing I could feel within myself. There is an emotional territory that I share with those people that most people don't have. Their lives are too lucky. But I thought this emotional territory was of unbelievable richness.

I had a long conversation with Joe Haldeman at a convention once, and he saw a lot of combat during Vietnam. We spoke like people with the same mind almost. It was very, very moving. "My life hurts a lot less now," I said to him. And he said "Mine, too." And then we had one of the best conversations of my life.

HORROR: In your most recent books, you have moved away from plots powered by supernatural antagonists. Was that a conscious choice?

STRAUB: Very much so. In Floating Dragon, I went as far as I could go with supernatural special effects. It would have killed me to try to top it or done anything again in which I used the conventional mechanics of the supernatural. The very idea of it caused real despair.

When I decided that I just didn't have the same imaginative, emotional belief that I'd had when I started, I had to find something else. And Vietnam was right in front of me. I turned on the television and watched veterans marching toward the memorial wall in Washington. These raggedy characters leaking trauma from every pore, yell ing wonderful and foolish and moving things to one another. I thought, "Oh, boy. This is it. Here we have actual horror in the world." Eventually I spun around to child abuse, which also seems to be one of the most horrific things imaginable.

I didn't think I'd have trouble bringing readers with me. I mean, I lost some, but I think I gained others who might never have thought of reading a horror novel. If I have a problem, and it's only halfway a problem, it's that I'll forever be seen as a horror writer. But the emotional content of these books isn't like that of any other horror writer on earth. If I wrote a bodice-ripper, every reviewer in America would say, "There's a subtext here." And they would be right.

HORROR: Which of your books do you feel succeed most thoroughly?

STRAUB: I would say Koko, Houses without Doors and The Throat.

I think Houses Wtthout Doors is realIy, really good. Some people saw it that way, and others didn't. Houses Without Doors isn't just collection of stories. It's a book, stitched together with those little interludes. Many a reviewer said, "And then there are these really terrible, pointless little things that this guy sticks between these stories to no purpose." But that's what I'm proudest about, the way those little pieces echo all the themes that tie the stories together and go somewhere.

HORROR: What's your opinion of the two movies made from your work?

STRAUB: Well, the smaller, cheaper one is infinitely better than the bigger, more expensive one. The Haunting of Julia is actually kind of incoherent, but that incoherency adds a level of mystery. You don't know why these people are connected, what they're up to, and that's atmospheric. With Ghost Story, what you can see through the darkness is all too obvious. My sleek but expansive Cadillac was turned into a push-bike by the director.

Now I don't think I have a chance of ever having another of my books turned into a movie. They're just too complicated, too full of story. And there s actually compassion for the villains. In fact, the villains get more love than the heroes do.

HORROR: Did Steven Speilberg's proposed adaptation of The Talisman go anywhere?

STRAUB: You know, it didn't. That kind of surprised me. I thought it was perfect for Spielberg, and Spielberg thought it was perfect for him. He was very encouraging to us. What was even better than that was that, through a few suggestions he made to us, he showed he really understood the book.

But right after he bought our book, he bought Thc Color Purpk and did that. I think he wanted to do work that would be seen to be "more serious" and I think The Talisman just fell between the cracks. There was a rumor a while back that it might be done as a mini-series and I'd be happy to see that, too. I should also say that William F. Nolan has done a script based on Floating Dragon and that might happen someday.

HORROR: What are you working on now?

STRAUB: I've only written a couple stories since the end of The Throat. I'm trying to work out an idea that's loosely based on Rogue Male, the Geoffrey Household novel. It's a long chase, and I'm trying to find whatever depth I can to enlarge that idea. I hope to start writing by summer. That's the way it has worked for a couple books. I start in the summer and finish in the summer two years later. I would be happier, though, if it were every 18 months.

HORROR: One last question. What would have happened to your career had you been able to publish Under Venus, the mainstream novel you wrote between Marriages and Julia, when you first finished it?

STRAUB: I've often wondered about that. It seems as if I would have gotten to the same place, but I would have wasted more time writing mediocre books without much muscle to them. Sooner or later, I would have realized that there was more feeling, more anger and imagination, awash in the scuppers than I was using. The rejection of that book, though it cost very dearly in peace of mind, was a very good thing in the long run.

(c) 1993 by Michael Berry


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