Mining thrills from human depravity
A veteran storyteller of tales horrific and unforgettable shares his thoughts about his latest release and the publishing industry.
PETER Straub is no stranger to the supernatural. He has written such unsettling novels as Ghost Story ( 1979), Shadowland ( 1980) and Floating Dragon ( 1982). He coauthored The Talisman ( 1984) and its sequel Black House ( 2001) with Stephen King, and his horror fiction has earned such honours as the Bram Stoker Award, World Fantasy Award and the International Horror Guild Award.
But to Straub, 73, the perversity of human nature provides the ripest fodder for truly disturbing stories.
“What people are willing to do to one another is pretty awe- inspiring,” he says in a recent interview. “Human beings will justify almost any actions. They’ll bring it in line as moral or at least forgivable behaviour.”
Straub’s latest collection, Interior Darkness: Selected Stories ( reviewed opposite), reflects that astute outlook. Borrowing works from Houses Without Doors ( 1990), Magic Terror ( 2000) and 5 Stories ( 2008) as well as three “uncollected” stories, Interior Darkness stares unflinchingly into the black hole of human depravity.
In the first story, “Blue Rose” – around which Straub built the novel trilogy Koko ( 1988), Mystery ( 1990) and The Throat ( 1993)– a family passes down a legacy of bullying and abuse and 10- year- old Harry begins to understand his penchant for violence. In “The Juniper Tree”, a boy is molested in a movie theatre. In the black, grisly comedy “Mr. Clubb And Mr. Cuff ”, a revenge fantasy goes horribly awry when a jealous husband hires two torturers to punish his unfaithful wife. “We could tell you stories to curl your hair,” Mr Clubb tells the unfortunate husband – and then proceeds to do so.
The success of Straub, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, indicates we continue to have a taste for such dark material. Why?
“It has to do with the messiness of common humanity,” he says. “Despite our best efforts, we are all deeply flawed. The only way to have a moral life is to acknowledge those flaws and not forget about them or deny them.”
The following is a Q& A from the interview.
How did you go about choosing works for a single anthology?
I had wanted ideally to do a book of col- lected stories. I knew it might be a pretty fat book. Then my agent informed me it would be two volumes, and there wasn’t a chance in hell I could get that published. So then I was obliged to consider “selected” stories, and that meant I did have to leave out any number of stories that I like a lot.
It took a long time. I made many lists. Each list was the final one until I thought about it again. Part of the problem is that half of the shorter fiction I’ve written isn’t at all short.
What was your criteria for including certain stories? Were you looking for certain themes?
Occasionally, stories were a little frivolous, and I didn’t choose those; I wanted a kind of balance. Really, one of the best things I’ve ever done is a story called “Bunny Is Good Bread” – which has some very graphic abuse of a small boy. When I used to read it in public my daughter would make this little “Oh no, he’s reading that again!” face. It’s not gratuitously nasty, but it is deeply nasty.
I did have one story about child abuse I was eager to place in the book [“The Juniper Tree”], and I thought probably one of those was enough for a single volume of stories. There are two stories about torture, though.
You’ve seen the publishing industry change dramatically over the years. How do these changes affect you?
I’m in my early 70s – I do pretty much what I want to do. I have a comfortable life. What I do now daily at my desk is not going to pay for the tuition of my children in private school – they’re adults, they’re out on their own. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be