Peter (Francis) Straub Essay - Critical Essays

Straub, Peter (Francis)


Peter (Francis) Straub 1943–

American novelist and poet.

Straub's novels of horror and suspense are characterized by the relentless influence of supernatural forces upon unsuspecting human victims. The resulting violence is recounted in unsparing detail. Unreal elements are placed in ordinary settings, thereby enhancing the atmosphere of horror.

Julia (1975) was Straub's first attempt at horror in a career which began with two volumes of poetry and a mainstream novel. It is a ghost story, full of ambiguities, unanswered questions, appearances without realities, and similar Gothic twists. The graphic scenes of evil and violence in this novel have become common throughout his subsequent works: If You Could See Me Now (1977), Ghost Story (1979), Shadowland (1980), and Floating Dragon (1982). Murder and mutilation are standard and evil often triumphs.

Critics acknowledge Straub's narrative skill and credit the appeal of his stories to the popular fascination with the supernatural. Some note, however, his over-detailed, at times repetitive style and his frequently slow pace.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

The Times Literary Supplement

[In Open Air Peter Straub] writes a poetry of assured, slow-moving, resonant statement, which is at best potent and at worst ponderous. Technically he is extremely competent, well able to exploit (sometimes over-consciously) dramatic shifts and pauses, working for the most part in drastically cramped and abbreviated units but capable, too, of some expansive imaginative flights. Some of the poems are Crow-like metaphysical musings centred on animals and tinged with a whimsical brand of irony; but the sardonic tone involved in this enterprise can slide too easily into a stilted and mannered language, too knowingly remote from the subject-matter it deals with.

"The State of Ireland," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3702, February 16, 1973, p. 183.∗

Ronald Bryden

Marriages is the other side of the Jamesian tradition: an American chronicle of the quest for European richness, complexity and depth. For Owen, the Middle Western businessman who narrates it, these are all embodied in the blonde, unnamed Englishwoman with whom he betrays his wife on a hypereducated trip … to Paris and Provence. Their love-affair is skilfully told, in a cunning mosaic of shifting flashbacks, but like most such it has to struggle by over-writing against cliché, not wholly successfully. One has drunk this incredible Southern light, tasted these perfect meals à deux, seen these slumbrous, leonine post-coital looks before. Where Straub shows himself a real writer is in evoking the sallow foreground and aftermath to love's exaltations: the sharp, disappointed, comradely wife who falls back on her bitchy sister for company; the lakeshore picnic where Owen first seduced her: their drunken Middle-Western wedding, presided over by a former bootlegger.

Ronald Bryden, "American Scenes" (© British Broadcasting Corp 1973; reprinted by permission of Ronald Bryden), in The Listener, Vol. 89, No. 2294, March 15, 1973, p. 348.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

[Marriages] is a pastiche' of almost every notable American novel written about Europe, from J. P. Donleavy's Ireland to Henry James's Paris, but [Mr Straub] anticipates any criticism of overliterariness or derivativeness by using those qualities as a conscious and essential ingredient….

With so many echoes and resonances, it is remarkable that Mr Straub retains a distinctive voice in the story. His story of an American businessman living in Europe, and his love affairs with his wife and mistress, is intricately controlled and focused; the complex series of flashbacks and time-cuts coheres because every time, place, or emotion is fully evoked. Everything is named and labelled, from Dublin streets to London restaurants, with the exception of "the woman" at the very centre of it.

Owen's affair with this woman forms the central thread of the book, but a whole cloth of other marriages and relationships has been woven round it. An accidental tug on the central thread causes all the others to vibrate, as Owen recalls his courtship of his wife, their wedding presided over by an ominous criminal, the various marriages of her relations, and his strange life in London.

Mr Straub has already published two books of poetry, and he is what is commonly called "a poetic novelist", with the fine sense of the weight of words which every novelist should have, and which many poets lack. It may be this skill which enables him to place so securely the sense of gesture, and the texture of atmosphere, which characterize Marriages.

"Poet's Prose," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3707, March 23, 1973, p. 313.

John Mellors

Peter Straub's highly ingenious tale of Kensington gore [Julia] excited me only to sceptical comment…. Julia is American, married to an English barrister, Magnus, who even at the age of three 'had an ancient, powerful soul'. Julia and Magnus had attempted an emergency tracheotomy on their nine-year-old daughter, Kate, when she choked on a piece of meat, and the child bled to death before the ambulance arrived. Julia leaves Magnus and buys a house near Holland Park; it turns out to be haunted by Olivia, another nine-year-old who had met a violent death. Olivia seeks revenge, and is bloodily successful.

It is the clumsily imprecise writing that lets the story down. On one page 'the air in the bathroom felt silkily warm to her facial skin', and a page later 'she could nearly feel the blood beating in her facial skin'. What's wrong with 'face'? And how do you nearly feel blood beating? A man 'applies the flame to the tip of the cigarette'. Where else would he light it? Within six pages Julia's vagina 'throbs' twice and 'aches' once. Her heart 'thrums' and 'thunders', and 'food bounced in her stomach like an angry ant'. An overcooked and indigestible blood-pudding of a book: good ingredients spoiled.

John Mellors, "Kensington Gore" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1976; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), in The Listener, Vol. 95, No. 2446, February 26, 1976, p. 254.∗

Michael Mason

It is very disheartening to come across the following phrase in the second sentence of Peter Straub's Julia: "his customer was precipitous and eccentric"…. This will strike some people as an extravagant reaction, and not worth voicing. But if you fail to notice or fail to remember that "precipitous" and "precipitate" are not the same you are likely to make other kinds of mistake to do with other parts of a fiction—in setting, character, theme, and so forth. Julia is set in London, and much of the action unfolds in a house in Kensington. These settings are adequately realized (though Mr Straub, who is an American, makes some errors about British institutions), but the characters are dizzyingly inconsistent. There is also a considerable vagueness in the plotting and a vicious circle ensues. It is not clear who does what, but the characters' dispositions cannot be called in as evidence because these are so indefinite, which is partly a result of the uncertainty about their actions—and so on….

In the last resort Julia … [succeeds] in the brutal business of delivering supernatural thrills…. [Mr Straub] has thought of a nasty kind of haunting, and he presses it upon the reader to a satisfying point of discomfort. And he has, quite wittily, made the nice world which the nastiness subverts a colour-supplement one of beautiful people living in Chelsea and Bayswater.

Michael Mason, "Nasty and Nastier," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3859, February 27, 1976, p. 213.∗

Jonathan Keates

Wild-eyed backwoods weirdness indeed dominates If You Could See Me Now. Peter Straub's third novel initially deceives by the familiarity of its opening formula: the bourgeois narrator is pitched against a conspiracy of silence among inhabitants of a farming community rocked by a sequence of killings. Apple-pie cosiness on every level, however, is quickly eroded. Miles Teagarden, steeped in useless campus apprehensions, is tossed with dour brutality round a circle of folk whose cult of the normal is interestingly offset by a tendency to maul and harry their wretchedly obtuse victim at every turn. His cousin Alison's childhood promise to 'come after' him, made minutes before her murder, reaches sinister...

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Peter Ackroyd

If You Could See Me Now works rather well. Its setting, a small farming community in the mid-West, is a great help. All Gothic novels must now streak against that particularly garish backdrop …, and specifically against those small immigrant communities which retain their indigenous customs while apparently adopting what is known as the American 'way of life'. This sense of 'passing', of remaining an alien while being ostensibly American, is central to American culture….

In Peter Straub's novel, the alien is merely a rational East-Coast academic, Miles Teagarden, who is returning to the small town which no longer needs him or wants him back. Despite all the possibilities for cliché in a...

(The entire section is 543 words.)

Jack Sullivan

According to Straub, he wrote Ghost Story out of a desire to "take the classic elements as far as they could go" in a contemporary setting. It is frequently worthy of its heritage, for when he wants to, Straub can write superb horror. Although the plot—involving the invasion of a small town by a demonic entity called "the shapeshifter"—is not exactly auspicious, many of the individual apparition scenes are frightening enough to jolt the most jaded ghost-story addict. There is a dream sequence set in an abandoned house, for example, that is simply hair-raising. The dread it conjures is cumulative and the climax it reaches has, like a revelation in a real dream, elements of both inevitability and surprise....

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Gene Lyons

[In writing "Ghost Story"] Peter Straub quite clearly wishes to have it both ways: to make a hit at the checkout counter and in the English department as well. For besides nightmares, apparitions, werewolves, blood-letting viragos and hosts of the undead, Mr. Straub has summoned up the literary shades of Hawthorne, Poe and Henry James in an attempt to dignify and provide a respectable context for his long and complicated book.

Up to a point, Mr. Straub succeeds in both ways. Academic fashion these days seems to favor narrative gamesmanship and irony, and "Ghost Story" delivers plenty of both. Parts of the novel, indeed, read like a series of illustrations to scholar Wayne Booth's "The Rhetoric of...

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Barbara Matthews

New Englander Peter Straub, like New Englander Stephen King, is capable of writing stark cold horror—the kind worshippers of the genre love to spirit away and read quickly, inhaling fright and holding it in their lungs until it becomes brittle enough to shatter if so much as a telephone rings. Straub's last novel, Ghost Story, was a classic horror tale so reminiscent of King's 'Salem's Lot that it seemed almost to have been written by the master himself. With Shadow Land Straub tries to go one better, forsaking the classic elements of horror for a convoluted, Magus-like nothing-is-quite-what-it-seems form of trickery complete with images piled so high and so haphazardly that finding a...

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Thomas Sutcliffe

Like [Stephen] King, Peter Straub has a string of creepy best-sellers behind him, but he knows that he is a new arrival and knows, too, which club he wants to join—the one to which Hawthorne, Poe and Henry James belong. In fact Shadowland takes as its principle a remark of Hawthorne's which is quoted approvingly in Straub's previous novel Ghost Story: "I have sometimes produced a singular and not unpleasing effect, so far as my own mind is concerned, by imagining a train of incidents in which the spiritual mechanism of faery legend should be combined with the characters and manners of everyday life."

It is one of the faults of Shadowland that it is too bound up with the...

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Barbara Righton

[In Floating Dragon] Peter Straub has returned to the same ground of his acclaimed Ghost Story. Once again he has created four main characters who are linked, albeit tenuously, by a murder. But unlike his earlier tale, in which a well-defined spirit was motivated by revenge, Straub has conjured up a pervasive "wrongness" that haphazardly destroys for wanton pleasure. "Hampstead's always been rotten as a bucket of month-old oysters," says an old newspaper compositor. But this is at best a vague explanation for the series of ghastly occurrences—earthquakes, fires, suicides—dating back to 1645 when a mean Englishman named Gideon Winter tried to wrest the town from its founders.


(The entire section is 351 words.)