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P E T E R   S T R A U B :
Seeing Double

(excerpted from Locus Magazine, December 1998)
Peter Straub
    Photo by Beth Gwinn
 
 
 

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contains ''Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff''

Peter Francis Straub was born March 2, 1943 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He received a B.A. in English from the University of Wisconsin - Madison in 1965, an M.A. from Columbia University in 1966, then returned to Wisconsin to spend three years teaching English at his former high school. In 1969, he moved to Ireland and did some work toward a Ph.D. at University College, Dublin. As a ''Ph.D. dropout,íí he had two books of poetry published in 1972, followed by his first mainstream novel, Marriages (1973). His agent suggested he try ''gothic fiction,íí and Straub came up with Julia (1975), his first horror novel (later filmed as The Haunting of Julia), then If You Could See Me Now (1977). He became a bestselling author of supernatural horror with Ghost Story (1979), continuing with Shadowland (1980) and Floating Dragon (1983). He collaborated with Stephen King for fantasy The Talisman (1984). The next projects were linked, and without supernatural elements: novella Blue Rose (1985), and novels Koko (1988) and Mystery (1990) - despite that lack of fantasy, Koko won the 1989 World Fantasy Award! He returned to dark fantasy for short novel Mrs. God (1991), but went back to associational thrillers in The Throat (1993) and The Hellfire Club (1997). His shorter work has been collected in Houses Without Doors (1990); he also edited the HWA anthology Peter Straubís Ghosts (1995).

''In a way, horror shouldnít be a genre. There should be books of that sort, but the range of possibility as generally conceived is too narrow to allow for a great many examples. We get a lot of repetition, and a great deal of fiction that is intensely formulaic. I myself am largely indifferent to vampires, and the same is true of mummies and werewolves. Iím sure thereís still some freshness to be found in these things, but it gets harder and harder to find it.

''I donít read much horror, though I like the idea of horror, the idea of a nasty, subversive genre, the purpose of which is to upend conventional ideas of good taste, and to speak truths otherwise ignored or suppressed. I think thatís really worthy. Iíd like to see a little more of it. Good works of horror are immensely impressive. Thereís some of Joyce Carol Oatesís stories. Thereís the best of Stephen Kingís work, which is breathtaking. One sees fine work being done. One also sees a great deal of second-rate or unfelt or inferior work.

''Iím a little more willing to grant that individual human beings can be evil than I once was, because it doesnít seem quite as reductive or simple-minded. People who are simply brutal, and interact out of a dulled, ever-present rage which they cannot in any way comprehend, and - in a sort of animal brute fashion - murder their fellows, I donít have any trouble calling that evil.

''One thing you can say about Jeffrey Dahmer is that, although he may have been a nice boy, his imagination was terribly literal. When he thought about evil, he thought about murdering people and eating them! Thatís not very elevated, not very nuanced. Nasty as this is, itís also kind of childish. I think he was drunk most of the time, and his thoughts moved in simple and repetitive patterns. Evil is not adult, in the moral sense, for sure.

''A recent novella I wrote for Murder For Revenge, an Otto Penzler anthology, 'Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuffí, is based very loosely on 'Bartleby the Scrivenerí by Melville. I reread 'Bartlebyí when it came out in one of those 'Penguin 60sí that also included my 'Blue Roseí, and to say I was impressed and moved is drastically to understate. I thought it was one of the most beautiful, most profound things Iíd ever read. It also addressed and spoke to an interest of mine which could loosely be called 'indeterminacy.í That is, what you know to be part of the greatness of 'Bartlebyí is that itís very difficult to describe in any terms but its own. You cannot reduce it to an equation. You cannot extract a comforting little moral from it. Itís hard to say exactly what it means, but it is completely profound.

''In The Hellfire Club, there are little demons and goblins and things, but they are obviously hallucinatory and produced within a person with a specific history, because of specific stresses or stressors. Evil in that form came as an almost demonically glib but absurdly self-absorbed, self-justifying figure - rather comically, I thought, a lawyer whose entire professional life consists of talking to old women, because he isnít a very good lawyer, and all his fatherís instruction was in the care and feeding of elderly female clients.

''I surprised myself a little bit by jumping into the fantasy 'poolí again for my new book, Mr. X. Iím not very interested in traditional fantasy, because itís so detached from anything like a recognizable world. I like the idea, though. Fantasy permits a sort of imaginative freedom that you can only get from a more colorful and irrational subject matter. And even my 'non-fantasyí Koko has those elements. It did win a World Fantasy Award, I think because people understood that there was a kind of fantastic element in there anyhow, because the real concentration is on the operations of imagination: the salvific effects, and also what may be the destructive effects if imagination has been contaminated or poisoned or misdirected, or if itís flawed and weak. Then you get people who behave in mad and destructive ways.''

© 1998 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.