I have long been an admirer of Peter Straub's work. From the early days of Julia (1976) and If You Could See Me Now (1977), through the epic visions of Ghost Story (1979) and Shadowland (1980), to his epic collaboration with Stephen King - The Talisman (1984) - he has maintained a clarity and vision almost unsurpassed by his contemporaries. He currently lives in America but was in England earlier this year to promote his new novel Mystery and collection Houses Without Doors.
Like all of Peter Straub's work, Mystery is a multi-layered, multi-faceted book. It concerns a boy, Tom Pasmore, who grows up in a world of exclusion, where the 'families' enjoy all the benefits and luxuries while others rot in slum dwellings. The scenario is all too familiar to anyone that has visited almost any large city, but Tom's life and background is part of the mystery he is to uncover. I asked Peter how Mystery came about.
"The mystery was originally going to be about a boy in a cave and his connection with the hero of the novel. In a way, the novel retained the same basic plot, that is a family with an immense secret, but revealed it in a wholly different way. There was also an aspect of 'Family Romance', which is a Freudian term referring to the fantasy that many children have that your real parents are actually far better, more noble, more handsome, more generous than the evil trolls in whose care you've been left. In Mystery, Tom Pasmore is raised by evil trolls and he does have a real, far more enlightened parent."
Mystery is arguably not a fantasy book in any sense and the same can be said of Koko (despite the fact that it won the 1989 World Fantasy Award). All of Peter's earlier work is quite definitely in the horror/supernatural genre - this genre can perhaps more accurately be described as 'Straub' as the books can defy attempts to categorise them. I wondered why the supernatural element had disappeared.
"It is still there in Koko, I think, but you are right. Only after I began to see a few reviews that discussed this aspect did I realise that a lot of the basic content of my more recent books is the same as it always has been, but the top layer of imagery has been changed. The simple reason is that I became tired of the old imagery. I'd exhausted myself and felt that if I continued with it, then it would be more like writing as a mechanical exercise than for pleasure.
"There is some supernatural stuff at the start of Mystery, but as one friend told me, there's a huge jolt once the detective plot takes over. There is a sort of shifting of gears. However the book isn't a supernatural novel, it's a far more generalised fiction about the growing up of a young man. I wanted all of the background about Tom to be included because it helps explain his character and what happens to him - it sets up his destiny in a way - and all that is tied into the plot.
"There is a process of trust that happened with Mystery. I'm very pleased with all my early books but there's no doubt that I really came into my own with Ghost Story. That was when I realised what I could do by learning to trust myself. To fly blind and to know that somehow I'd land. It used to really bother me if I didn't know where my book was going and eventually I learned to trust my own instincts. I build a lot of material: imagery, characters, events, into my books early on and these will, if I pay enough attention to them, tell me where I have to go.
"With Mystery, I noticed that there was one character who really demanded the centre of the stage - the old man, Lamont von Heilitz. When I couldn't balance his power with the emotional power of the other aspects of the book - the boy in the cave - the novel changed. Once Lamont von Heilitz started talking I realised that he was at the centre of the novel, there were old murders that he had solved incorrectly and that these murders were going to travel beneath the surface of the book until the very end. Despite this I wanted a tone to be there at the beginning to say that it is not a detective novel but that it is a book about a detective."
Koko and Mystery followed a fairly lengthy break after the publication of the epic fantasy novel The Talisman, co-authored with Stephen King. What was the reason for the break?
"It was both exhilarating and bruising writing The Talisman. Not because Steve was insensitive, rude or tactless - he's not - he's an absolutely generous, sensitive, smart, kind ... he's a real boy scout in a way. But on the other hand he's no weakling, especially as a writer. So I felt a little mauled, and I was also exhausted, so I announced to anybody who cared - mainly my wife - that I was going to take some time off. I took a year, and I just read, I took trips, I stayed up late, I had some fun and I generally took things easy as well as starting to formulate some ideas for Koko. Right at the end of that period I was reading a book called The Freudian Fallacy that was about Freud, cocaine and brain neurology (it's not a very good book because the writer hated Freud). Something about the connection between hypnotism and epilepsy really stung me and I realised I could write a story about a guy who makes murder look like epilepsy through hypnotism. Then I realised that it was a small boy who did it to an even smaller boy, and I couldn't not write it. My little vacation had ended! The story was called 'Blue Rose' and it took about three or four months to write. This led me further into Koko and eventually, over the course of three years, that developed into the completed novel."
Another short story completed in that period was 'The Juniper Tree' - where did that fit in?
"'The Juniper Tree' was written in the first summer I was doing Koko. I had bought a brownstone in New York, and I had to spend a couple of months there, by myself. There was such a wrench between that and my normal life, that I didn't trust myself to write Koko because I thought I'd botch it up, but I thought I could write a short story. It was after I read a book called The Lover by Marguerite Duras that I had this irresistible notion, just like with 'Blue Rose', of a little boy being seduced. Again this idea seemed really powerful, and I took the whole summer to do it. I really enjoyed writing that, I thought it really worked."
Both 'Blue Rose' and 'The Juniper Tree' appear in the first collection of Peter's short stories, Houses Without Doors, just published by Grafton. I wondered if Peter found it easier to write short fiction.
"I actually think it's harder to do short pieces and I hardly ever do it. Both 'Blue Rose' and 'The Juniper Tree' worked, they were both related to Koko, they were part of the emotional landscape of Koko and they have the same emotional colour as Koko - really dark, bleak and hard. Generally I can't write short pieces and when I do, they all turn out to be two hundred pages long.
"I was thrilled by Robert Aickman's collection The Wine Dark Sea, especially a story called 'Into The Woods' which really moved me. I finished a short novel called Mrs God right after I read the Aickman collection. I wanted it to be open to all kinds of interpretation, not rounded off, really enigmatic in the way that much of Aickman's stuff is."
Mrs God also appears in Houses Without Doors as well as another short novel (The Buffalo Hunter, inspired by a show of sculpture in New York) and several other short stories. Finally I wondered what plans Peter had following Houses Without Doors?
"The next thing is a book which follows a direction similar to the material in Houses Without Doors. My 'genre' has a lot to do with looking at violence in a way that is peculiar to me. I'm looking for the conjunctions between what could be called the sacred and the violent. It seems to me that they have some powerful territory in common which can only be found in that conjunction. I think the next book, which will culminate the themes I began in Koko and continued through Mystery - all the Blue Rose business, will be in that spot where violence meets the sacred. This means that it has to be seen from an extremely individual, slightly crazed, viewpoint, enabling me to do what I like to do best; examine the world in a detailed way that is full of feeling and has a kind of surreal alertness. I think that is the fantastic. That viewpoint incorporates everything you can find in any supernatural novel, anything goes, and it's seen in a way that justifies it. I'm not at all interested in fantasy novels per se, I'm not excited by unicorns, misty maidens, that sort of stuff, but you can incorporate that in this viewpoint so that it has twice the emotional power. Everything is on a razor edge and it can tip either way into really appalling territory. Now that's fun!"
My thanks to Peter Straub, and also to Andy Lane and Debbie Collings for their help with the interview.