Peter Straub Essay - Critical Essays

Straub, Peter


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."

Principal Works

Julia (novel) 1975
If You Could See Me Now (novel) 1977
Ghost Story (novel) 1979
Shadowland (novel) 1980
Floating Dragon (novel) 1983
The Talisman [with Stephen King] (novel) 1984
Koko (novel) 1988
Mystery (novel) 1990
The Throat (novel) 1993
The Hellfire Club (novel) 1996

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Valentine Cunningham (review date 27 February 1976)

SOURCE: "Death Dealers," in New Statesman, Vol. 91, No. 2345, February 27, 1976, pp. 264-65.

[In the following excerpt, Cunningham praises Straub's Julia.]

Most weeks Peter Straub's Julia would be a certain pieceleader, granted 'generous space to send its spine-freezing frissons lasering down the column. This week, a bit regrettably, since quality chillers like this come the reader's way so rarely, it must look comparatively out-punched. Don't be put off: matched at its own weight it's a champ. It begins plainly enough, with an American lady, Julia Lofting, impulse-buying a house near Holland Park. But the foreboding sense of yet another American novelist abroad...

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Peter S. Prescott (review date 26 March 1979)

SOURCE: "All but the Clanking Chains," in Newsweek, Vol. XCIII, No. 13, March 26, 1979, p. 104.

[In the following review, Prescott provides a brief plot summary and a favorable assessment of Ghost Story.]

Surely this is the longest ghost story ever written. That alone should cause the aficionado to hoist an eyebrow, for the genre virtually demands brevity. I was equally troubled by the author's declaration that he wanted to push the elements of the ghost story "as far as they could go." That, I thought, had long since been accomplished by grandmasters from Hawthorne and Le Fanu to Blackwood and M. R. James. Groundless fears, these. With considerable technical...

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Peter Straub with Joseph Barbato (interview date 28 January 1983)

SOURCE: An interview in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 223, No. 4, January 28, 1983, pp. 39-40.

[In the following interview, Straub discusses the progress of his literary career.]

First in Ghost Story and Shadowland, and now again in his new novel Floating Dragon, horror novelist Peter Straub has worked to nudge his readers—right off the edge of a cliff, he says. "I want readers to feel as if they've left the real world behind just a little bit, but are still buoyed up and confident, as if dreaming. I want them left standing in midair with a lot of peculiar visions in their heads."

In Floating Dragon, he admits, the nudge has...

(The entire section is 1443 words.)

Alan Bold (review date 11 March 1983)

SOURCE: "Horror of Horrors," in Times Literary Supplement, March 11, 1983, p. 249.

[In the review below, Bold reviews Floating Dragon's style, which he describes as "cinematic."]

Although Peter Straub makes references to writers such as Washington Irving and Wilkie Collins, the immediate sources of his huge novel Floating Dragon are cinematic. Addicts of horror and science-fiction movies will recognize images from Alien (humans stripped to their gleaming bones), The Exorcist (graveyard stench and vomit), The Shining (torrents of blood), Zombies (decomposing creatures laying hands on the living), The Invisible Man (a key...

(The entire section is 773 words.)

Michael Small (review date 4 April 1983)

SOURCE: "Yikes! Peter Straub's Floating Dragon Scares Suburbia," in People, Vol. 19, No. 13, April 4, 1983, pp. 102-03.

[In the following review, Small presents a favorable assessment of Floating Dragon.]

A specter haunts the suburban paradise of Hampstead, Conn., and it isn't just crabgrass. A housewife gets slashed, a corporate exec turns to liquid, children in Keds march lemminglike into the sea, which is sometimes blood-red and covered with flies. All of this couldn't make author Peter Straub happier: Such imaginative horror, in a suburb so real you can smell the lawn trimmings, has made his latest chiller, Floating Dragon, a best-seller. "The...

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William Goldstein (interview date 11 May 1984)

SOURCE: "A Coupl'a Authors Sittin' Around Talkin'," in Publishers Weekly, May 11, 1984, pp. 253-55.

[In the following interview, Straub and Stephen King discuss their collaboration on The Talisman.]

They met in England in 1976 or 1977, at Brown's Hotel in London. Each had read the other's books, and they had corresponded a bit. "We had a drink or two and got along well enough that we thought we could sit down and have a meal," Stephen King remembers. "So we went along to Crouch End, Peter's house, my wife and I."

He stops to pinpoint the date. "I do remember this. You can find out. When we came back, Stephanie, my sister-in-law, who was staying at our...

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Charles Leerhsen (review date 24 December 1984)

SOURCE: "The Titans of Terror," in Newsweek, Vol. 104, No. 27, December 24, 1984, pp. 51-52.

[Below, Leerhsen favorably reviews The Talisman.]

Stephen King has given us spooky stories like Pet Sematary and The Shining and taken meetings with, trust me, Hollywood film moguls, so he's obviously a man not easily frightened. Still, not long ago the 37-year-old writer found himself feeling as creepy as, say, a kid reading Stephen King's Christine. What worried him was the impending publication of The Talisman, an epic quest yarn on which he'd collaborated with Peter Straub, the best-selling author of such spinetinglers as Ghost Story and...

(The entire section is 990 words.)

Michael Small (interview date 28 January 1985)

SOURCE: "Peter Straub and Stephen King Team Up for Fear," in People, Vol. 23, No. 4, January 28, 1985, pp. 50-52.

[Below, Small interviews Straub and King about their collaboration on The Talisman and possible future projects.]

For two years a dark mysterious mass lurked inside the word processors linked by phone to horror novelist Stephen King's home in Maine and spook writer Peter Straub's in Connecticut. Finally, in November, the thing emerged in the form of America's current No. 1 best-seller, The Talisman. A 644-page fantasy about a 12-year-old boy's odyssey in a netherworld filled with vicious werewolves and killer trees, The Talisman is a...

(The entire section is 665 words.)

Bernadette Bosky (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Stephen King and Peter Straub: Fear and Friendship," in Discovering Stephen King, edited by Darnell Schweitzer, Starmont House, 1985, pp. 55-76.

[In the essay below, Bosky examines the influence of Stephen King on the development of Straub's literary style.]

Friendships between writers are always interesting, and that between Stephen King and Peter Straub is both one of the more interesting and one of the more productive in the history of supernatural and horror fiction. Even in a genre whose writers have a certain sense of community, friendship may be difficult. As Peter Straub puts it, "Meetings of writers are always like the coming together of princes who...

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Geoffrey Stokes (review date May 1993)

SOURCE: "Ghosts: The Many Lives of Peter Straub," in The Village Voice Literary Supplement, No. 115, May, 1993, pp. 25-26.

[In the following review, Stokes examines the thematic structure of Straub's Blue Rose Trilogy.]

Toward the end of Koko, the first novel of Peter Straub's Blue Rose trilogy, a killer renders himself effectively invisible by slipping into another man's clothes and appearing just where that man was expected to be. The implication is that most of the time we "see" what we anticipate seeing—and by extension, the greater the expectability of our daily lives, the less we actually perceive.

This notion is applicable to Straub's...

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Frank Wilson (review date 27 June 1993)

SOURCE: "The Return of the Blue Rose," in The New York Times, June 27, 1993, p. 24.

[In the following favorable review, Wilson provides a plot summary of The Throat.]

With The Throat, Peter Straub concludes a trilogy that began with the novel Koko and continued with Mystery. He deftly recapitulates the themes of the first two, then modulates them into that of this very impressive finale.

The police department of Millhaven, Ill., had closed the book on the Blue Rose murder case back in 1950 when a homicide detective named William Damrosch was found dead in his home of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, having left a note with the...

(The entire section is 521 words.)

Joseph Andriano (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "From Fiend to Friend, The Daemonic Feminine in Modern Gothic," in Our Ladies of Darkness, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993, pp. 135-44.

[In the following excerpt, Andriano examines the place of Ghost Story in twentieth-century Gothic fiction.]

The male hysterical reaction to fiends in women's garments continues well into the twentieth century, during which the Gothic mode has flourished in the ghost story and the weird tale. Many of these texts display vivid anima signs. Oliver Onions's "Beckoning Fair One" (1911) is a famous example: a novelist's fictional heroine haunts him as a ghost and rivals the woman whom he should be loving; equally...

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Adam Meyer (interview date Summer 1994)

SOURCE: "Impure Consciousness," in The Armchair Detective, Vol. 27, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 264-71.

[In the following interview, Straub discusses the creative process and the evolution of his fiction.]

Peter Straub lives as one would expect a writer to live: surrounded by books. As we ascend to his office on the top floor of his Manhattan brownstone, we pass shelves at every landing, shelves piled and crammed and jammed with volumes; if there is any organization based on size or subject, it eludes me. On the walls are posters from the movie adaptations which have been made from Straub's work, Ghost Story and The Haunting of Julia (based on his more...

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Don Ringnalda (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Civilian Perspectives in Peter Straub's Koko," in Fighting and Writing the Vietnam War, University Press of Mississippi, 1994, pp. 115-35.

[In the following essay, Ringnalda addresses the issue of "civilians" writing about the Vietnam combat experience.]

Up to this point we've looked at three writers who spent a year "in country." All three experienced combat—even the civilian "journalist" Herr. Peter Straub did not. So what's he doing in a book called Fighting and Writing? How can a civilian possibly write about war? How dare he claim that special privilege? To this day, many veterans of the Vietnam War share the attitude that if you weren't...

(The entire section is 8116 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 1 February 1996)

SOURCE: "Enough Fearful Twists for Everyone," in The New York Times, February 1, 1996, p. C17.

[In a mixed review of The Hellfire Club, Lehmann-Haupt praises the reach of the novel, but feels that the story occasionally gets away from the author.]

In Peter Straub's latest horror novel, The Hellfire Club, Nora Chancel, the story's heroine, suffers in a hellfire of masculine patronisation. Like her namesake in Ibsen's play A Doll's House, Nora is treated by the men around her as an object of little consequence.

Her husband, Davey, cheats on her with other women and even neglects her for his obsession with Hugo Driver's "Night...

(The entire section is 969 words.)

Tom De Haven (review date 9 February 1996)

SOURCE: "Magical Mystery Tour," in Entertainment Weekly, February 9, 1996, pp. 46-47.

[Below, De Haven provides a plot summary and favorable review of The Hellfire Club.]

Peter Straub's novels (Ghost Story, Koko, The Throat, If You Could See Me Now) feel terrifyingly plausible till they're over; then they seem preposterous. Nobody else working the horror-and-suspense field—not even Stephen King—concocts anything remotely resembling the audacious, labyrinthine plots that Straub serves up year after year. He's puzzle maker as much as he is a storyteller, and if his narratives are often as unwieldy, baroque, and zany as a Rube Goldberg contraption, they're also...

(The entire section is 613 words.)

Colin Harrison (review date 25 February 1996)

SOURCE: "Murderer's Row," in The New York Times Book Review, February 25, 1996, p. 9.

[In the following excerpt, Harrison compares The Hellfire Club to Dean Koontz's Intensity.]

Pity the serial killer. He is now a cliché—killed this, slaughtered that. After The Collector, by John Fowles, Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris, and The Alienist, by Caleb Carr—not to mention true-crime books about David (Son of Sam) Berkowitz, Ted Bundy and others—it is no longer sufficient for a serial killer to have clean fingernails and a filthy mind, to lick his lips as the knife flashes or to appear to be only a pleasant fellow dreamily wandering...

(The entire section is 767 words.)

Bernadette Lynn Bosky (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Mirror and Labyrinth: The Fiction of Peter Straub," in A Dark Night's Dreaming, edited by Tony Magistrate and Michael A. Morrison, University of South Carolina Press, 1996, pp. 68-83.

[In the following essay, Bosky examines Straub's body of work.]

Peter Straub's fiction is notable for its combination of unity and variety: the continuing exploration of specialized themes and a characteristic tone within works that cover a range of settings, genres, and styles. While this is not necessarily unusual—in fact, it characterizes most good artists in any field—it may be less common than it should be among writers of the modern American Gothic, especially due to...

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Further Reading


Brockway, James. A review of Marriages in Books and Bookmen 18, No. 8 (May 1973): 100.

Negative review in which the critic faults Straub's style, stating that certain passages are "painstakingly boring."

Lyons, Gene. "Horror Shock." New York Times Book Review (8 April 1979): 14.

Mixed review of Ghost Story in which the critic concludes that, even though Straub's storytelling is at times "glacial," the novel is "a quite sophisticated literary entertainment."

Sutcliffe, Thomas. "Getting the Wind Up." Times...

(The entire section is 145 words.)