THE MAN WHO WOULDN’T BE KING
Peter Straub leaves us in the dark
By Don Stradley
Peter Straub leaves us in the dark
By Don Stradley
Peter Straub’s greatest trait as a writer is probably his durability, however his two collaborations with Stephen King is likely the real reason you’re aware of him. Though to read the book jacket of Interior Darkness, a new collection of short works put out by Doubleday, he’s “an American icon” who “cracks the foundation of reality and opens our eyes to an unblinking experience of true horror, told in his inimitable and lush style with skill, wit, and impeccable craft.” I preferred a line in The Associated Press’ review which sounded like the warning on an aspirin bottle: “These stories take a while to work on you. Reflection and rereading is sometimes necessary.” If that means anything, it’s that Straub’s tedious tales are impressive to people for whom reading is not a priority. But with 25 years’ worth of stories to choose from, a big collection like this is tempting. If nothing else, it gives us a chance to see how an author can take the usual cants of a genre, present them in a flavorless, longwinded, manner, and be hailed an “icon.”
There’s no doubt that Straub is one of the few writers of scary tales who has a sizable readership along with a vibe of intelligence and innovation, making him the Emerson, Lake & Palmer, or maybe the Yes, of horror. To doubt the value of Straub is akin to a vote against cleverness, or the way he handles such ages old subject matter as misfit kids exploring a spooky landscape, or lonely eccentrics battling the strange forces that may or may not be all in their minds, or school teachers with sinister secrets – in short, against everything horror writers have been beating to death for decades.
The stylishness and élan of Straub’s stories are not in doubt. Over the years he’s done quite a lot with ideas that are well-worn, but rather than run them through the coke-fueled EC comic engine that once made King interesting, he presents them like a pedantic student, dragging out simple premises for nearly 100 pages. Despite the drooling of people like Neil Gaiman that Straub’s “shorter fictions are like tiny novels,” Straub might've been better served if he'd followed the old songwriter’s axiom of “Don’t bore us - get to the chorus.” There’s a fear that to dismiss Straub means you’re simply a dullard, and since readers of genre fiction fight to be taken seriously, they’re glad to have Straub as the thinking man’s horror writer. His main subject is the juvenile trauma that haunts his characters. No one is immune in Straub’s world, not the drab office worker nor the aging jazz legend, from some youthful experience that provided for them a kind of psychic whammy. The main character in ‘The Buffalo Hunter' buys baby bottles and glues them to the walls of his apartment, then leans against them like a fakir on a bed of nails, a hopeful distraction from the “childhood that reached forth and touched him with a cold, cold finger.” Interesting enough, I suppose, but Straub is better when he gets off the childhood grind and hits on the disappointment of his character’s adult lives, and how the passage of time seems to rake a man’s bare skin.
Granted, Straub’s cultural references cover his stories with a kind of highfalutin sheen – the gruesome climax of one piece demands a reader to be at least somewhat familiar with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina - and his mannered way of telling a story, which consists of piling on the minutiae while barely teasing the good stuff, makes one think we may, indeed, be in the hands of a different sort of horror writer. The San Francisco Chronicle praised the collection for Straub’s “bracing taste for experimentation,” as if he’s some wizard performing extraordinary tricks with these stories. But in fact, underneath Straub’s fancy lattice work is some rickety old stuff. The payoffs of the stories go back to material well-mined by Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, and, I’m sure, others from the 1950s magazine age. Straub, bearing the trademark of the minor artist, is fascinated with style above all else, particularly in the more recent pieces, and like a properly mindful elitist, is repulsed by the pop culture. “Words and phrases of unbelievable ugliness,” he writes at one point, “language murdered by carelessness and indifference, dead bleeding language, came from the television.” The simpleminded dismissal of television, with its “stream of language so ugly it squeaked with pain,” is a constant in Straub's work, but there are more pressing faults in these stories, namely, a lack of suspense, and characters who are flatter than bar napkins. Straub’s sense of location could use a jolt, too. In Straub’s hands, the Midwest is merely a cold, colorless place; New York feels no different than any other metropolitan area. He takes more care in ‘Pork Pie Hat,’ describing a nasty, backwoods area where witches may dwell, sounding for all the world like a character in one of King’s vintage works, ‘The Body,’ perhaps, or Pet Sematary. But even when Straub gets it right for a few paragraphs, he’s done in by his own diarrhea of the keyboard, his zooming desire to just write the hell out of everything.
This collection fails to ignite any excitement about Straub. Granted, he can sling words better than most of his genre colleagues, which isn’t saying much, and he possesses a narrative daring that, despite causing his stories to feel overdone, has won him a slew of admirers. But when one thinks of great short horror stories, by Poe, or Lovecraft, or Dennis Etchison, or Clive Barker, or Bloch, or Bradbury, or for that matter, when he was still concerned with things like craft and pacing, a young Stephen King, Straub’s pieces feel like leaking parade floats.