Books In Conversation
RISING TO THE OCCASION:
PETER STRAUB with Joseph Salvatore
By the time I encountered Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From: Selected Stories, in 1989, I’d already seen many of his stories in various magazines, books, anthologies—even on faded photocopies of copies of copies that my fiction teachers regularly taught from in class. He was everywhere in those days, and so one Saturday morning, in a grim second-floor apartment on Harrison Avenue in Salem, Massachusetts, I read cover-to-cover a copy of those selected stories, and was transformed utterly by the work. It sent me back to the bookstore to purchase all the earlier books from which those stories were drawn, wanting more.
(Doubleday Books, 2016)
I had a similarly transforming experience reading horror master Peter Straub’s newest release, Interior Darkness: Selected Stories. I had read many of his novels—Ghost Story, Julia, Koko, and The Talisman (co-written with Stephen King) among my favorites. With the release of his selected stories, I would now be able to see what this legendary novelist could do with the short form. I had read a few of his stories over the years (in fact, I still own one of those tiny, convenient, stand-alone Penguin ’60s editions of his “Blue Rose,” which I’d kept in my backpack for years and pulled out often to read again and again), but with the release of Interior Darkness: Selected Stories, I could be fully immersed in a volume of work, selected by the author himself, spanning a career. The experience of reading it was unexpected—it was total and brutal and terrifying and uplifting (true!) and funny (true! true!) and sad and exhilarating and inspiring and truly dazzling in its breadth and harrowing vision and ruthless aesthetics. I felt changed by the book, changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been brought out by Peter Straub. I intend to read all the earlier volumes.
Spanning over twenty-five years and sixteen stories in just under 500 pages, Interior Darkness is a sweeping achievement—a body of work that showcases a vision unique in American horror/suspense writing in its genre-bending combination of psychological terror, realistic characterization, fierce suspense, philosophical insight, masterful storytelling, and a control and precision of language that reveals a thoughtful artist at work behind those grisly scenes.
I spoke with Peter Straub on a sunny, late-winter Sunday afternoon, by phone from his home in Brooklyn.
Joseph Salvatore (Rail): Interior Darkness is a collection that goes back over twenty-five years. Congratulations on so much productivity!
Peter Straub: Thank you. If I had put in a story called “Something about a Death, Something about a Fire” the collection would have gone back forty years. So I am a little sorry I didn’t! That was the first story I wrote that was actually worth preserving, and I put it in the collection Houses Without Doors, where of course I don’t mention that the story is much older than the stuff that surrounded it. But when I was choosing for these selected stories it didn’t quite make the cut, and I can’t exactly tell you why, except that, in tone, it’s not much like the stories that I included.
Rail: It sounds like, despite the great joy of bringing out this collection, it must have been an arduous process. Can you tell us about your selection process? How did you make the cut for these sixteen stories?
Straub: Well, it was hard. I originally had wanted to make a collected stories that contained all my stories in two full volumes, but that was way too long for me to count upon the philanthropy of my publisher. [Laughter.] At that point I knew I had to make a selection, and I decided to go book by book, choosing stories from each individual volume. Once I had chosen the stories that I thought would stand up well together, I edited my selection for length. I am naturally an expansive writer, so a lot of the stories I have written are really novellas. Some of them are almost a hundred pages long, and if you put three of those together, you’ve got a collection the size of a novel, so then I had to find a balance between theme and length. It took me a month to make list after list of selections. I did some of the editing while I was in the hospital last year, and now I am amazed I had the energy to do it when what I really wanted to do was just take my Oxycontin and fall asleep. [Laughter.] But I rose above the occasion and I did what was required.
Rail: That is admirable. You say you based most of your selection on the theme and length of the stories, could you say a little bit more about how you perceive your themes?
Straub: Well, I didn’t start writing short fiction until I was in my forties. And the reason was, I had taken a year off after Stephen King and I wrote The Talisman. I had worked without a break for over a decade, and I felt like I needed a break. But I got very rusty during that year. What finally called me back to work was a kind of “brain fever” that was the origin of a story called “Blue Rose”—the first story of the early collection Houses Without Doors andthe first story of Interior Darkness. It took me a long time to write “Blue Rose,” but that work got me back into the act and into the process of writing fiction again. It also got me into the world that became the novel Koko, and it was really inspired by a kind of love. I was taken by an idea that occurred to me while I was reading a novel called The Freudian Fallacy, a very bad book about Freud and neuroscience, in which the author claimed that the refinements of neuroscience had disproved the concept of the unconscious. And at another point in the book, he suggested, almost whimsically, that hypnotism and epilepsy cause the same effect in the same part of the brain. As soon as I read that, a vicious little ding! went off inside my brain, saying, “Oh my God, now that’s interesting.” So I thought I would write about a boy who hypnotizes his brother to commit suicide, and then everyone would think he died of an epileptic seizure. By doing that, however, I violated the actual ground rules for hypnotism, because you cannot hypnotize somebody into killing himself. But these children live in a kind of “alternate Straub-ian universe” where the very psychologically powerful older brother has the capacity to tell his younger brother, whom he has hypnotized, to swallow his tongue. I needed that for the story because I wanted to create an unhappy, broken domestic world that would produce a man capable of killing a lot of children during the Vietnam War. For a couple of years after finishing “Blue Rose” I wrote short stories only when they came upon me like brain fever, or a heart attack, a demanding inspiration or persuasive power that said to me: “You have to stop what you are doing and write this right now!” And it was this feverish creative process that made me think I must be a very good short story writer indeed because I only wrote stories that demanded to be written! [Laughter.] But I should say that in the twenty-five years since I wrote “Blue Rose,”I have also written stories because I was asked. If I was invited to contribute a story to an anthology by some editor that I liked, and if that anthology’s theme was tempting, I would agree to contribute. So there were times I wrote a story just to see what would happen or because I liked a theme.
Rail: Were the results of these “professional gigs” as satisfying as the fevered inspiration you were just describing?
Straub: Yes, pretty much. For example, “Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff,”a long storythat I based on Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” is a good example of that. When I read Melville’s story I was limp with admiration. I was so moved and stunned by its beauty and mysteriousness that I felt like writing something like it. Some time later, the editor of The Best American Mystery Stories, Otto Penzler, invited me to contribute to a book called Murder for Revenge. The stories for that collection spun on the theme of revenge and, although it didn’t seem like a natural fit, I thought that I could probably link up “Bartleby” with revenge somehow. That combination spoke to me, and I thought I could write something interesting, new, and unexpected. That is an example of a time when I was happy not be proceeding entirely on the basis of pure, original, feverish inspiration.
Rail: I picked up on the Melvillian style of “Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff.” The wonderful language and the allusions to “Bartleby”are certainly there, but it has its own distinct content and identity. I noticed, in the second paragraph of the story, that you used a series of subordinate clauses that begin with the word when. I wondered if that was a deliberate reference to the first page of another of Melville’s famous works, Moby Dick: “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet [. . .].” Was that a conscious allusion? Were you thinking of that style when you wrote the beginning of “Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff”?
Straub: Well, the truth is that I have never been able to get through Moby Dick. And I admit that the flaw is in me and not in the book! [Laughter.] But I have not been able to get through it. However, I certainly know the paragraph you’re referring to, and I can say that it definitely was not intentional on my part; I didn’t have it in mind when I set out to write that passage; it just fell under my hand exactly as I wrote it. However, there is a kind of 19th-century voice in a lot of my work that’s slightly parodic, which comes very naturally to me, and which I’ve used often; and it happened to come in handy there. I like the effect—the suspended feeling of piling up all these “whens” and then finally coming in with the main clause at the end. One of the greatest examples of that sentence style is in the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; another would be the opening of Dickens’s Bleak House.
Rail: Since you say “Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff” did not arrive to you as a brain fever as “Blue Rose” did, would you say that the process of writing it was any different? How long did it take you to write it? I would love to hear some of your observations about that process. It’s one of my favorite stories in Interior Darkness.
Straub: It took me a really long time to write that story—between five and six months. But it all kept coming, day by day, without much friction. I really enjoyed the experience; it didn’t involve much pain, and I had a tremendous amount of fun every time Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff opened their mouths—with the mix of those high and low language ranges and all those malapropisms! It almost felt as though it was being outsourced! As though I was calling somebody else up on the phone, and saying: “Ok, now you talk like these guys!” But I knew at the time, and I know now, that this ventriloquist came from some other room inside my head where there is a guy with a quill pen just waiting to receive the phone call that says, “All right now, go to work!” [Laughter.] But I also wanted there to be the moral point coming through without much heavy breathing. I wanted to make clear that the terrible things that happen to this character, he richly deserved; but at the same time, in some ways, he comes out a better human being after his torments. At the end of the story, after much misery and suffering, we see a more educated, more adult, responsible human being.
Rail: Absolutely. And if there is any congruity with “Bartleby,” it’s to be found there, isn’t it? The narrator’s journey in “Bartleby” brings him to see the inscrutable scrivener ultimately as a reminder of our shared humanity.
Straub: That is very true and moving—yes!
Rail: You were telling us that the Koko novels emerged from the story “Blue Rose.” Why did you decide to keep “Blue Rose”as a short story instead of expanding it or merging it into the novels? You kept it at its length and yet spun three books out from it.
Straub: One of the reasons is that in the short story the character is still a child, and in the novels the character is an adult. I felt that “Blue Rose” was too powerful to be included as a flashback or as a look backward in the course of the present action of Koko. This also happened with another story—a novella, really—which I did not include in the new collection, called “Bunny is Good Bread” which was in a book called Magic Terror. The main character of “Bunny is Good Bread,” which is a story very similar to another of mine called “The Juniper Tree,”is a little boy who gets abused by an adult male in a movie theater while watching a film noir. The boy is irrevocably polluted and darkened by that experience; he loses his mind and eventually becomes a killing machine. That killing machine is a character in my novel The Throat. I wrote “Bunny is Good Bread”as an explanation of how this killing machine got to be the way he is. It’s ninety pages of third-person narration that was originally in the middle of The Throat, a first-person novel. I had originally thought I’d include that story inside The Throat, but I finally realized it didn’t belong there. Yet at the time it felt terribly wrong, like an amputation, to take it out—I’d worked on it hard and long, and I think it’s quite good—but after it was taken out I understood I had done the right thing for the novel: it had to do with the amount of weight and stress you need to balance a story, and it had to do with an issue of a resourcefulness of a certain range of material that has to be made to flow into other ranges of material over the course of a long book. That 90-page story was simply too much, too powerful, to be included; it threw the balance of the novel off. So when it came time to choose for this new collection of selected stories, it seemed to me that I didn’t want to have two stories in the same collection that dealt with the sexual abuse of a small boy in a cinema. I actually felt very tempted to include “Bunny is Good Bread”in the new collection, and taking it out was maybe the hardest choice I had to make in the selection process. In the end it was a choice between “Bunny is Good Bread”and “Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff,”and I thought that the latter was a bit less hellish, a bit more humane, a bit funnier, while at the same time being quite serious at its core. That is why I chose it.
Rail: Now that we’re on the subject of sexual trauma and movie houses, let’s discuss your story “Lapland, or Film Noir.” Can you talk about the use of ellipsis in that story?
Straub: Yes! That’s another one with the same theme! [Laughter.] Well, the idea of the ellipsis isn’t completely original to me. There was a book I had just read called Zirconia, written by the poet Chelsey Minnis. It has entire pages filled with ellipsis. I found it so brave and curious! I wondered if I could do the same. I wondered if it could ever be used in fiction. And my opportunity to find out came as a request for new material from Bradford Morrow, a good friend of mine who is the editor of the journal Conjunctions. Bradford was going to do an issue about cinema, and I wanted to be in it. No one had yet chosen to do a story based on film noir. I love film noir. It really turns me on. So I thought that I could do a story that mashed up all kinds of film noir movies, and I could just imply the plot by cancelling it out behind lots of ellipsis. It’s an experimental story that I wrote not for the sake of experimentalism itself but because I liked the idea of ellipsis, and I wanted to spare myself the obligation of writing out all sorts of clichés from film noir. The ellipsis also permitted me to suggest the inclusion of all kinds of things that remain basically vague, but were implied anyhow. I just really liked that combination of factors, and then, at the end, I realized that it all could be the product of a mind tormented to the point where it cannot take in its surroundings. The kid from “Lapland, or Film Noir” has had his mind erased during certain moments of the screening of these films, and he cannot recover the details that have been lost. Everything in the story is suggested with ellipsis, and the conclusion is given in a sort of fragmented, abbreviated form, with the appearance of Alan Ladd, who gives the boy a message about the boy’s own role in the abuse; but all of it comes in fragmented, abbreviated form via the use of the ellipses. And I liked that.
Rail: I would like to go into detail for a minute about your style, both your narrative style and prose style. I know you’ve written poetry seriously for a while and that you’re a fan of John Ashbery, and I’ve often wondered if the powerful creative control that I’ve always noticed and admired—and marveled at!—in your writing came from that influence of poetry. I’ve read that when you started writing fiction you wanted to construct stories that were fragmentary and elliptical and postmodern, stories that suggested things rather than laboriously dramatizing each and every moment. But then, as your career progressed, you turned, in the major body of your work, to dramatically structured, scenically driven narratives—well-plotted, well-constructed, traditionally built stories. But let’s consider the stories “Lapland, or Film Noir” and “The Collected Short Stories of Freddy Prothero” (your most recent story at the time of this interview). In both stories, not only is there the fragmentary quality of the ellipsis (in the case of “Lapland”), but in each there is also the mystery of the elliptical information, the missing or obscured text, that draws one back to the beginning to reread and reconstruct the text, and in the case of “Prothero,” to decode that childlike, almost Joycean babble-language that you employ early on to emulate the way a child might actually write childlike language. When I first read “Prothero,” I thought, “Okay, this is cute and there is an affection here for childhood and for the innocence of childish perception and language use,” but when I went back and considered the entire collection, I was reminded of your use of the ellipses in “Lapland,” and I went back into “Prothero” again to try to decode that childish babble—which I could do now that I knew the ending of the story. And I found I could understand even more of what you had left out by rereading the piece and working out the system of obfuscation you employed. In these stories you nearly provide a key to the absent text, a key that can be found in the later prose style of Prothero when he’s an older writer and his prose style is more adult, more legible, less obfuscated. In that way I would argue the stories function almost as postmodern Cortázarian puzzles. Can you talk about that move in your long career in which you went from being the poet who understood and appreciated experimental approaches to language and narrative, to the novelist who could dramatize the hell out of a genre-bending horror/suspense story, who then goes back again, in his later short fiction, to those other kinds of experimental forms that he played with earlier in his career?
Straub: Well, thank you for that generous reading of my work. When I began writing, in my early twenties, I assumed that I wanted to be an experimental postmodern writer. I really had no interest in traditional narratives. I actually wrote a novel with that theoretical understanding in mind, and it was not all that good. But it was the best I could do at the time, and it was published. But the next time I wrote a novel of the same sort, I did not have the same publishing luck. Later I wrote Ghost Story, and I discovered, much to my astonishment, that what I was actually good at was traditional narrative! It was a little humbling and it also felt really good. I knew that it was coming from some deep place inside me and I knew I would have been crazy to stand in its way. But I still wanted to investigate traditional narrative to see what I could do with it, and the more I thought about it, the more dissatisfied I became, for my own sake, with conventional narrative gestures. But I was now stuck. I didn’t know what to do because I already knew I couldn’t write convincing experimental novels, and what I was good at was another thing altogether. Fortunately, I came across the notion of fragmentary truths, a notion first floated to me by my friend the poet Ann Lauterbach. I understood that truth is not one big indivisible, shiny, entity but that it comes in fragments; it’s a lot of broken things. And I think that the way we live our actual lives is kind of in line with that perception. This realization is very much a product of having been immersed in John Ashbery and Ann Lauterbach and in my own growing dissatisfactions with narrative and truth. So in my novels I began to portray the same set of events through different lenses and ascribed the same events to different characters. The conclusions drawn by one set of characters are actually represented as reality, but are then undermined in the book that follows. When I realized what I’d done, I liked it; but I hadn’t planned any of it out. I just let myself go from one day’s inspiration to the next day’s inspiration, and my stories fell where they needed to. But when I looked at the books Koko, Mystery, and The Throat,I realized that narrative technique was happening and it seemed right to me. After that, I was not as aware of my impatience with conventional, let’s say 19th century narrative procedure. It’s what I am good at, and it’s what I read too. I love Victorian novels. I believe that George Eliot descended to earth on a cloud! [Laughter.] I have always had the need of doing things my own way, of searching for my own particular approach. If I had been content with traditional narratives, I would have written Ghost Story over and over again, and I would have two palaces in Malibu, and a plane of my own! [Laughter.]
Rail: It’s been such a pleasure to be able to talk about the creative process with a writer who has the career longevity you have, and who is so attentive to what you do and to how you’ve needed to change and grow and discard things that have felt stale in order to find new ways of expression. This leads to my last question. Writers such as John Updike and Henry James extensively revised stories when they were being collected or selected for later volumes. I wonder how you, being so attentive to language, felt about the work you did twenty-five, or even forty years ago, when you were collecting these sixteen stories that make up Interior Darkness. Did you feel the urge to revise them? Or are you happy with the style and structure of the many different things you have written over the decades?
Straub: In a way, I wish I had revised them! [Laughter.] But, in truth, I think that I would keep them all the way they are. I’m more interested in doing something new than in changing things I’ve already done, over and over. Henry James recasted his earlier work according to more sophisticated and profound ways of thought, for the New York edition of his stories. But for my stories, I think I’ll let them be, and move on to something new.