Peter Straub Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Peter Straub 1943–

American novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Straub's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 28.

Concerned about his financial success after the cool reception of his first mainstream novel, Peter Straub sought the advice of his agent. "You're poor, you're unhappy, write a Gothic," she said. Straub admits that, at the time, he didn't know what a "Gothic" was, but he began by reading the classics of the genre. His first two novels in that vein, Julia (1975) and If You Could See Me Now (1977), were commercially successful. The development of a friendship with author Stephen King and an appreciation of his work led Straub to a less restrained style, as first evidenced in his first best-seller, Ghost Story (1979). Straub continued to expand the concept of the horror novel through his subsequent works.

Biographical Information

Straub was born March 2, 1943, to Gordon and Elena (Nilsestuen) Straub. While still a child, he was struck by a car and nearly killed, resulting in a long, painful convalescence. Straub has said he was profoundly affected by the event and attributes some of the themes of his writing to this experience. He even includes this event in the personal biographies of some of his fictional characters. He attended Milwaukee Day School, then received a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1965. He wrote his master's thesis on William Carlos Williams and earned an M.A. from Columbia University in 1966, the same year he married Susan Bitker; they had two children. For three years Straub taught at Milwaukee Day, which served as the model for the school in Shadowland (1980). But, as Straub says, "I grew bored. If I'd stayed, I'd have become a gravy-stained old teacher with a beat-up car and an alcohol problem." The Straubs moved to Ireland, where he attended University College in Dublin from 1969 to 1972. Throughout college Straub had written mostly poetry, but while in Ireland he changed direction. "In Ireland," he said in a Washington Post interview, "I suddenly realized what the trouble really was: I had always thought of myself as a novelist although I had not written a novel. I could feel fiction growing inside me, characters and situations forming themselves in my mind as I walked down the street."

Major Works

Straub's first novel, Marriages (1973), is a first-person narrative of the extramarital affair of an American living in Europe. Although it received some favorable reviews it was not commercially successful. Straub was working on a second mainstream novel, Under Venus (which was not published until much later as part of a three-novel collection, Wild Animals [1984]), when his agent suggested he try a Gothic novel for more commercial success. Julia is the story of an American woman living in England and married to an attorney, Magnus Lofting. They attempt an emergency tracheotomy to save their choking child, but the girl bleeds to death. Distraught, Julia leaves Magnus and moves to an old house which is haunted by the malignant ghost of Olivia, the late daughter of Magnus from a previous marriage. The novel was a commercial success, and the basis for the 1977 film, The Haunting of Julia. It also heightened Straub's interest in the possibilities of the horror genre. In Straub's next novel, If You Could See Me Now, Miles Teagarden, an East Coast academic, returns to his native Wisconsin community, the site of several recent murders. Like Julia, the novel juxtaposes the insane and horrific with the mundane and everyday. This theme of horror lurking beneath the surface of normal life is explored in ever-increasing detail in Straub's literary work. Ghost Story (1979), Straub's first bestseller, examines the horror of past sins lurking beneath the quiet exterior of a small town in Connecticut. Five elderly men, members of the Chowder Society, a sort of ghost story club, are bound by a horrible secret. Fifty years earlier, they conspired to conceal the accidental murder of Eva Galli, placing her body in a car and pushing it into a lake. Eva, however, is not human but rather a shapeshifter, or Manitou; she escapes from the car, changing into a lynx. In addition to the Manitou legend, the story incorporates elements of the classic ghost story, werewolves, vampires, and other paranormal activities, prompting some critics to describe it as a summary of American supernatural themes. Straub's next work, Shadowland, disappointed some readers of Ghost Story as less overtly horrific than Ghost Story. It follows two boys, friends enrolled at an Arizona prep school, and their battle against one boy's uncle, a master magician who tries to kill them both. Floating Dragon (1983) is again set in a New England town beset by an evil from the past. Straub incorporates a realistic threat—a leak of poisonous gas from a chemical plant—into supernatural horror, manifested in several ways: the evil ghost of Gideon Winter, The Dragon, is sometimes a man, other times a swarm of flies, a flock of bats, the poison gas itself, or a swarm of tiny dragons. Many critics noted a major shift in this regard between Straub's early novels—Julia and If you Could See Me Now—and his subsequent works. While working on Shadowland and Ghost Story, Straub developed a friendship with Stephen King, one of America's premier horror writers. Straub credits King with showing him that the horror writer need not be constrained by the Victorian history of the genre, which suggests that the horror be hinted at, rather than shown in all its gruesome detail. A collaborative novel, The Talisman (1984), grew out of their friendship. In the story, twelve-year-old Jack Sawyer sets out on a cross-country journey to acquire a magical cure for his mother's cancer. Along the way he discovers "the Territories," a medieval parallel dimension, populated by "twinners," counterparts of the characters in the modern story. In addition to finding the Talisman, Jack must save the parallel society from the evil pretender to its throne. Straub's next three novels, collectively referred to as the Blue Rose Trilogy, mark a turning point in his career. No longer using the conventions of the supernatural, Straub instead evokes a similar feel by examining the distorted reality of nightmares, psychosis, and the horrors of war. In the first novel, Koko (1988), several army buddies are reunited at the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial in 1982. Beevers, their former lieutenant, tells the group that he suspects another former member of their platoon, Underhill, a crime novelist now living in Singapore, of committing murders in the Far East. Several people have been found murdered with one of the regiment's cards, with the word "Koko" scrawled on it, stuffed in their mouths. The second book of the trilogy, Mystery (1990), takes place in the 1950s and '60s. Tom Pasmore, the young protagonist, suffers a nearly fatal auto accident. Tom and his mentor, the renowned detective Lamont von Heilitz, solve a series of murders. Like Koko, it is essentially the story of the corrupting power of secrets. The Throat (1993) returns to the present time and unites Pasmore with Underhill as they attempt to identify the person responsible for severely beating a friend's wife, someone who revealed his familiarity with the "Blue Rose" murders by leaving evidence at the scene. As in the two previous novels, Underhill must deal with unpleasant aspects of his own past to unravel the mystery. In The Hellfire Club, Straub again begins with an old crime. Nora is the wife of Davey Chancel, the head of Chancel House, a publishing company whose biggest success is Hugo Driver's "Night Journey." In addition to worries about the state of her marriage, Nora is frightened by a serial murderer stalking their area. When Nora is arrested, charged in the kidnapping of her husband's mistress, and jailed, the serial killer, Dick Dart, is apprehended and brought to the same jail. Dart takes Nora hostage and escapes.

Critical Reception

Critics gave only lukewarm praise to Straub's first published novel, Marriages. Its narrative style was generally well-regarded, but several critics felt the plot was thin and clichéd. Although Geoffrey Stokes spoke highly of Straub's horror fiction, remarking, "Among horror novelists, there was no one who juggled points of view and narrative voices with more authority." Stokes continued, "Marriages is a tight-sphinctered little book, its occasionally striking prose clotted with self-importance and its plot—married American man falls in love with European woman, sees Paris, Provence, and self with new eyes—yet another reprise of an Edwardian standby." Julia and If You Could See Me Now received better reviews. Valentine Cunningham stated that "Julia, its power to horrify doubtless stemming from that original, grisly conceit of parental, kitchen-knife surgery, makes an extraordinarily gripping and tantalizing read." While both Julia and If You Could See Me Now were criticized by some for having simple, derivative plots, Ghost Story was not. Stephen King called it "one of the best gothic horror novels of the past century." Bernadette Bosky, noting the authors' mutual admiration, contended that King's assessment "is not flattery or judgment colored by friendship…. Rather, it is the appreciation for the works that drew the men to friendship in the first place." Comparing the two authors, Bosky commented, "If Stephen King is the heart of contemporary horror fiction … then Peter Straub must be considered its head…. In contrast to Stephen King's seemingly intuitive and colloquial storyteller's prose the fiction of Peter Straub is deliberate, structurally complex, and above all, styled." Many critics have voiced opinions about the influence of each on the other, especially after the publication of their collaborative work, The Talisman. Bosky remarked, "One possible area of actual change, and the clearest example of King's influence on Straub, is in the use of subtle vs. blatant horror; yet even there, it seems the example of King's fiction led Straub in a direction he probably would have traveled anyway." In a review of Ghost Story, Valerie Lloyd said, "With considerable technical skill, Peter Straub has constructed an extravagant entertainment which, though flawed, achieves in its second half some awesome effects. It is, I think, the best thing of its kind since Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House." As his body of work grew, critics noted an increasing depth beneath the pyrotechnics of Straub's plots. Bosky wrote of Floating Dragon, "Though it is often accused of being sloppy, because it is the most violent and colloquial of Straub's books, Floating Dragon is actually more carefully structured than its predecessors. In this respect, it may be a turning point for Straub." Although The Talisman, Straub's collaboration with Stephen King, was a commercial success, it did not generally receive serious regard from critics, aside from considerable speculation as to which portions of the book each author wrote. Straub's next series of books, the Blue Rose Trilogy—Koko, Mystery, and The Throat—were well received and considered by many critics to be his best work. Don Ringnaldo described Koko as an artfully constructed examination of the effect of the past on the present, and an insightful contemplation of the effect of Vietnam on Americans, both those who fought and those who stayed home. According to Ringnaldo, the horrors of the war were a reflection of America's culture of violence. He commented, "Straub reverses the prevailing attitude of teachers, critics, novelists, and psychologists regarding the war. According to that attitude, Vietnam engulfed us in darkness that now needs to be illuminated. Implicit in Koko, on the other hand, is the attitude that Vietnam was the light that should have illuminated the dark sub-text of American myth." Critics lauded Straub's continuing development of the themes of duality and the examination (and acceptance) of the past as a means of coming to grips with the present. Geoffrey Stokes wrote of the third novel of the trilogy, "Less tricky and more direct than Straub's chillers both at its core and on its surface, The Throat is nonetheless more successful within its genre; the intensity of focus concentrates it in a way more frightening than any of Straub's earlier horror novels." Reception of The Hellfire Club (1996) was mixed. Some critics liked the presentation of the story, but found the plot overly structured. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, describing the end of the novel, wrote, "Later in the story, Mr. Straub plants more clues than he can harvest and explains events faster than he can make them happen. As The Hellfire Club careens to its implausible conclusion, his plot becomes so rickety that the rubber bands snap and the chewing gum comes unstuck." But other critics found the plot twists engaging. Tom De Haven said, "By the time this mad melee sorts itself out and reaches its grisly climax at a spooky old mansion deep in the woods (during a thunderstorm, natch), you realize that you've been suckered into a completely improbable sequence of events and a cast of artificial characters. But the craziest thing of all is you don't care. You've been royally entertained, you've gotten your money's worth, you've been taken for a good long giddy ride by one of America's most idiosyncratic imaginations."