Books

Between the Lines: ‘Interior Darkness’ reveals Peter Straub’s psyche

Book cover image of "Interior Darkness," selected stories by Peter Straub.
Book cover image of "Interior Darkness," selected stories by Peter Straub. AP

Whenever the reigning masters of the macabre are tallied, the same three names turn up: Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Peter Straub.

Straub, who turned 73 last week, has terrorized generations of readers for more than 40 years with horrific tales of serial murderers, evil spirits, twisted magic, rampant madness and menacing parallel worlds. For doing what he loves best, he has won a trophy room of honors, including the World Fantasy Award and numerous Bram Stoker Awards, and he is a veteran of the New York Times bestsellers list.

His new book, “Interior Darkness,” is a collection of 16 previously published stories cherry-picked by Straub himself from hundreds (Doubleday, $29, 496 pages).

“It’s unusual to do a selected-works book for a current contemporary writer,” said Doubleday editor Robert Bloom. “But Peter is a legend, and we see ‘Interior Darkness’ as the crowning achievement of his decades of being at the center of American letters.”

Visit Straub at www.peterstraub.net.

Q: Your editor calls the new book a “crowning achievement.”

A: If I’m ever “crowned” I hope it’s 10 years from now with a massive novel everybody loves. However, I see this book as a kind of summation of where I am now after a long time in the vineyards. Though it’s kind of like a tombstone.

Q: You and Stephen King collaborated on “The Talisman” in 1984 and “Black House” in 2001. Word is you two are working on Book 3 to complete the trilogy.

A: We were going to start it two years ago, but I have been mired in a novel. It has required long periods of waiting for things to arrive, and not all of (the delays) have to do with me. Steve is looking at me out of the corner of one eye, thinking, “When is this man going to finish what he’s doing so we can do our book?” We do have a very good idea for it, and I’m counting on him to display an uncharacteristic degree of patience – meaning “extraordinary.”

Q: What is the novel-in-progress about?

A: It’s set largely in 1958 and involves a woman who becomes – upon the death of her husband – the fifth-richest woman in America. The point is what she does with the money and how she deals with a serious disturbance in her family life. Let’s be upfront and say there’s a man who worships Jack the Ripper and re-creates those murders. A slip of the tongue leads the woman to realize she knows who this guy is. The working title is “Hello, Jack.”

Q: You will always be associated with your breakthrough novel, “Ghost Story,” an international best-seller. The 1981 movie had an all-star cast including Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Patricia Neal.

A: I had great hopes for it, but it had big flaws that came from the movie studio. The director was prepared to go with a script which came directly from my book or was generally in the same key as my book. But (editors) in the studio thought they, too, were artists and had to express themselves. Consequently, many serious scenes wound up on the cutting room floor, (resulting) in a movie that lacked coherence at certain crucial points. It was crazy.

Q: A number of stories in “Interior Darkness” are novellas, a form you favor.

A: I would write novellas for six months at a stretch, if it wouldn’t interfere with the production of novels. I wrote what was supposed to be a short story for an anthology with my daughter, (novelist) Emma Straub. It was supposed to be 20 to 25 pages long. Emma knew in her bones that she and I could write it easily in two weeks. I knew nothing of the sort. I kept sailing off in delirious new directions, introducing new characters. When Emma returned my sections to me, I saw she had cut out all that stuff. I always have the urge to wander down interesting byways.

Q: Why do your readers love to be horrified?

A: There’s a kind of shock in thinking, “Oh, my god, he cut the heads off 45 people in an auditorium in Colorado. … Gee, I’m glad I’m not one of them.” These things go very deeply into us and we don’t want them to. We don’t want to feel as though we have anything in common with the person who did that, or feel that (such events) somehow touch us in ways that throw us off center. And yet they do. That’s the real point of our attraction – they remind us of what we don’t want to admit.

Q: Counterintuitively, you have published four books of poetry.

A: Once I started writing fiction full time, the ability to write poems left me. However, the impulse did not, nor did my love of poetry. I read it a good deal of the time. It helps me think in unconventional ways.

Q: Do you have a message in your body of work?

A: It is that unease is never a misguided way to approach the world or respond to the world. Every being on Earth has his own story, but most of them don’t understand their own stories – they’re just driven by them. The goal is to try to see those hidden narratives in the people we meet so we can deal with them intelligently, compassionately and appropriately. The point is to see more, rather than to see less.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

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