The Daily Telegraph

Peter Straub

Master of the macabre whose novels had literary merit to go with their stratosphe­ric sales

- Peter Straub, born March 2 1943, died September 4 2022

PETER STRAUB, who has died aged 79, won critical acclaim for elevating the horror genre with novels that were cerebral, allusive and poetic, although it was his recognitio­n that the horror writer’s first duty was to scare his readers half to death that ensured his books sold millions of copies.

Straub establishe­d himself as a master of the macabre with Julia (1975) and Ghost Story (1979). His career in horror began almost simultaneo­usly with that of Stephen King, and critics often touted him as a more intellectu­al alternativ­e; but the two writers admired and influenced each other, and went on to collaborat­e on two novels, The Talisman and Black House.

Straub claimed, however, that in general he had “ambivalent” views about his fellow horror writers. An academic and teacher by profession, he began his literary career as a poet, and his first novel, Marriages (1973), was an Updikean saga of adultery.

It was only his failure to interest any publisher in a second novel in a similar vein that prompted his agent to suggest he try a Gothic story that might capitalise on the success of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971).

Finding The Exorcist “meretricio­us and badly written”, he vowed to do better. Marriages had been “the standard poet’s novel”, Straub told The Sunday Telegraph (“I had deliberate­ly avoided plot”), but when he began work on Julia, “suddenly I found that I was writing something that had a strong basic narrative pulse … I soared … I thought, God, I’m not lowering my standards, and it still works.”

Although Straub was vocal in his dislike of being pigeonhole­d as a horror writer, he always recognised the genre’s unique power. “I like its acknowledg­ment that life is a dodgy and uncertain business, and a monster with a smiling face may live or work right next door to you,” he observed in 2016.

Peter Francis Straub was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on March 2 1943. His father, Gordon, a steel salesman, was a Catholic of German descent; his mother Elvena, a nurse, came from a Norwegian family that had farmed in Wisconsin for many generation­s.

As a small boy he got into the habit of sneaking off to the local picturehou­se alone, and in later life he revealed that when he was six a man had sexually assaulted him there. At seven he had to relearn to walk after being hit by a car. The resulting sense that “the world was not benign” would feed into his work.

He studied English at the University of Wisconsin-madison and took an MA at Columbia University, before returning to teach at his old school in Milwaukee. Fearful that if he “stayed too long I’d turn into a really sodden Mr Chips”, he fled to University College Dublin to embark on a PHD. In Ireland he published his first book of poetry, My Life in Pictures (1971).

He wrote Marriages in four months and, abandoning his PHD (“Suddenly I didn’t have to struggle to find something new to say about Anthony Trollope … I could just write”), he determined to become a full-time author, and moved to London.

The success of Julia – the ambiguous story of an American woman apparently being haunted by her dead daughter at her new home in Holland Park – saved Straub and his family from penury. In 1977 it was filmed, with Mia Farrow, as The Haunting of Julia (also known as Full Circle). His next horror novel, If You Could See Me Now (1977), saw evil spirits descend on the sort of tightly knit Midwestern rural community he was familiar with from childhood visits to his mother’s relatives.

After that, Straub decided to branch out from his usual restrained and suggestive manner and “take a gigantic risk [with] a book that was gaudy, and shamelessl­y so”. Ghost Story (1979), peopled with spooks, werewolves and shape-shifters, played with the tropes of two centuries’ worth of horror tales and propelled Straub’s sales into the stratosphe­re.

It was filmed in 1981 with Fred Astaire and Douglas Fairbanks Jr, by which time Straub, fed up with punitive UK taxes, had returned to live in the US.

The collaborat­ion between Stephen King and Straub on the fantasy novel The Talisman (1984) – their use of modem-linked computers thrilled the press – was regarded by one commentato­r as akin to “matching Edgar Allan Poe with Henry James”, and reviews were mixed, but the book was a million-seller in its first year. Sam Leith in The Daily Telegraph

deduced that Straub was to blame for the excessive “writerline­ss” of the duo’s 2001 sequel, Black House.

Although nowhere near as prolific as King, Straub continued to produce a steady stream of novels and stories. His last novel, A Dark Matter (2010), earned him his fifth Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers’ Associatio­n – a haul beaten only by King.

King noted in Danse Macabre, his book on horror fiction, that Straub was somebody “who dresses impeccably and who always seems to project the aura of some big company success”, and yet to close observers he had “the dreamy eyes of a child”.

He was an unlikely devotee of the long-running soap opera One Life to Live, in which he secured a recurring guest role as a blind detective anagrammat­ically named Pete Braust.

Peter Straub married, in 1966, his childhood sweetheart Susan Britker. She survives him with their son Ben and their daughter, the writer Emma Straub.

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 ?? ?? Straub in London, 2011. Below, The Talisman (1984), written with Stephen King, sold a million copies in its first year
Straub in London, 2011. Below, The Talisman (1984), written with Stephen King, sold a million copies in its first year

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