Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Thoughts on "Interior Darkness" by Peter Straub

For many readers, Peter Straub is to horror fiction what John le Carré is to spy fiction: the genre’s greatest, most ambitious, writer, one who deepens and enriches an often-disdained literature with talent, skill and daring vision. Straub takes the horror genre’s old tropes and enlivens them, turns them inside out and upside down without ever demeaning them. He not only makes them seem new, he makes them new. Peter Straub’s eighteen novels may vary, inevitably, in their success, but his energy, intelligence, and ambition are always on display.

When I finished reading his classic Ghost Story in 1980, I knew I’d actually read a good book--enormously entertaining but written in a high literary style, its roots deep in American and world literature. It worked on multiple levels, as college professors like to say. At the time, I firmly believed in that ten-foot high, three-foot thick wall between art and entertainment, between literature and genre fiction. Ghost Story cracked that wall, made it crumble. I was driven to press it into the hands of everyone I knew, especially sniffy reactionary skeptics: “Oh, that stuff? That’s junk!”

But they were wrong then. And they’re wrong now.

There is one area, however, where I dissent from Straub’s other admirers. It’s commonly said among horror fans that the best stuff is found in short fiction. I believe that can be said of Straub’s work: Most of his best work is in his novellas and stories.

To demonstrate my thesis, I happily point you to his latest collection, Interior Darkness: Selected Stories.

Interior Darkness is a gift, a sampler not only for Straub’s longtime admirers, but also for readers who may be new to—or still suspicious of—the horror genre.

Interior Darkness draws from all of Straub’s collections over the years, starting with Houses Without Doors (1991) and ending with The Juniper Tree and Other Stories (2010).

I read most of the stories when they first appeared. The second and third time through brought more rewards, delight streaming after delight. Though I knew them, many felt new to me, bursting and bristling with surprises I’d missed the first time through.

Interior Darkness opens with the classic “Blue Rose,” a hidden room in the Straub literary universe that began with his award-winning suspense novel Koko. It’s a harrowing tale of sibling cruelty that is both wrenching and beautiful as Straub leads us through the surreal hallways of family abuse, all the way up to a very grim attic.

Also exceptional is “The Juniper Tree,” about a young boy in the 1950s who encounters evil in the local movie house while trying escape a miserable home life, a kind of No Exit scenario.

“The Buffalo Hunter” (probably my favorite) is a rich compelling portrait of a lonely man’s mind crumbling away as the border between the pulp novels he reads and the dreary world he lives in starts melting away, causing him to sink into decadent infantilism, involving, among many strange things, baby bottles.

“A Short Guide to the City” another longtime favorite, remains one of the most formally daring stories I’ve ever read as Straub refashions a typical Chamber of Commerce tour guide, turning it from boosterism into a brooding atmospheric portrait a Midwestern city sinking into decline as it suffers under the terror of a serial killer.

Too much is going on in Interior Darkness to capture it all in this pixillated transitory space. Straub writes in a strong high literary style, rich with metaphors, allusions and elaborate, often mystifying, scenarios. The tendency toward sentimentality I find in some of his novels is happily, to me at least, missing here.

Among the strangest tales is “Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff,” a very black comedy about a double team of professional hit men whose ambitions extend beyond doing their job and collecting their fee. As one of their clients discovers to his ruin, there really is no getting away with murder. It’s the funniest story in the collection.

Straub draws inspiration from a variety of sources, including Henry James (for whom he’s had a lifelong passion.) “Ashputtle” seems inspired, in part, by Charlotte Gilman’s classic “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Music is also a major fount of inspiration, especially blues and jazz, captured in such excellent tales as “Pork Pie Hat” and “Little Red’s Tango,” both dealing with lost young men seeking to plumb the mysteries of creative passion, both their own and that of the mysterious musicians they love.

Straub’s portrayal of the spirit world—the place we glimpse only through the cracks—is more allusive and indirect than most other horror writers. The Beyond rarely shows its scorched face, but peers from under the thin ice upon which we all skate. Sometimes it eats its characters from within, enveloping them in smoldering decadence and bitter isolation. (Bunting, the protagonist in “The Buffalo Hunter” seems especially gripped by these forces.)

Of course, not all the stories succeed. “The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine,” a Lovecraftian tale set on in the Amazon Basin remains static and unsatisfying despite its humid jungle atmosphere, and several “bridge” tales seem to have little effect.

But these small matters fail to dent the overall power of this collection. This is a worthy monument to Peter Straub’s work. It is so far and by far, the best new book I’ve read this year.

Thomas Burchfield’s latest novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up, due later this year. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and the upcoming Dracula: A Tale of Power. (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work online at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

"Now Speaks the Devil": The Story of an Unproduced Screenplay

Now Speaks the Devil was begun in 1984. First titled The Way, a first draft was completed around 1986, with a final draft completed in 1991, then re-edited again for its current publication by Ambler House (with the fine assistance of Bookbaby).

This was the second screenplay I completed and the first I considered good enough to show around Hollywood. My first, Under the Gun, was an ersatz “Dirty Harry” farrago about a right-wing cop forced to team up with a potheaded hippie to wage war against a gang of neo-Nazis on the rampage. I killed off the entire population of San Francisco in the course of 120 stupid pages. It remains a-moldering deep in the file cabinet.

I feel quite a bit better about Now Speaks the Devil, though it’s a sophomore effort.The plot uses that old reliable McGuffin—dirty money lost and found. Its initial spark was an article in, as I recall, The San Francisco Chronicle about a young Christian man who found $10,000 cash in a bag in an underground Muni station. After some undoubtedly intense prayer, he wisely decided to turn it over to the police. A month passed, no one showed up to claim the money, and so it became his.

Yes, that used to be the practice, once upon a time. The chap was likely the last ever allowed to reclaim found treasure before the policy was ended in response to the intensifying “War on Drugs.”

My muse immediately fell into “what if” mode. Might the young man be a fool in telling the whole world about his windfall? That whole world includes the money’s original owners. To my evil mind, he’d hung a “shoot me” sign around his neck.

I know if I were a certain kind of bad guy, I’d want that money back. And I’d stop at nothing to get it.

And so I set to work. The initial title was The Way.


One of my favorite Hitchcock truisms is “the better the villain, the better the movie.”

The villain of this piece was all saddled up to ride. He’d been already lurking the alleys of my brain since the late 1960s. Some regular visitors to this space and those who know me elsewhere, will already know who he is.

Namely, this guy.

Yup. That guy.

Sadly, by the mid-1980s, Lee Van Cleef’s thirty-year career was in its final fade. The great movie villain had not aged well and his films of the last ten years or so ranged from mediocre to unwatchable. I’d tired of seeing him in bad movies and had about given up.

Still, he remained an enormously charismatic, ideal bad guy. Now the Speaks the Devil was, in great part, an attempt to lift him from obscurity. It would be kind the kind of movie he should have been in: a sophisticated, solid thriller. He would have something better than decent to leave behind, a farewell worthy of John Wayne’s in The Shootist. A great movie? Maybe not. Just good. Most of the time, that’s good enough.

It might well have worked out that way, too. I named my villain Thornton and all his scenes are first draft, with only minor editing over the years.

Whatever else readers thought, everyone who read this loved to hate Thornton. I bet you will, too. He’s an avatar for movie villains everywhere.


While I had my antagonist from the first keystroke, the protagonist, the mouse in this ruthless cat-and-mouse game, was struggle and nightmare from start to finish.

The young man in the original news article was, I recall, an Evangelical. My acquaintance with religion was about nil, though I admired traditional Christianity from a distance for its ritual and music. Nevertheless, my consciousness was mired in a swampy nihilism where all faith traditions seemed “the same” to me.

I created a family for this man, the classic stereotype from the 1950s: dad, mom, and two kids. I built them a house in the San Francisco suburb of Daly City. The theme of the necessary loss of innocence seemed to require they live outside of Babylon to make their naiveté credible.

I first named my protagonist “Zeke,” a diminutive of “Ezekiel,” which I plucked at random out of the Old Testament. Robert Redford could’ve played him, someone of wide-eyed and stubborn innocence, a very likable if dangerous naïf. He’s a cousin to Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest and characters in Eric Ambler—the ordinary man over his head in extraordinary circumstances, sometimes through his own fault. Even so, no matter how much he’s a fool, you don’t want anything really bad happen to him.

I tired of “Zeke” after awhile and called him “Buddy” for a time. Knowing little about Christianity, I had a devil of a time figuring out what kind of Christian he was. I visited a few denominations in San Francisco to get some clues, but came away with little. I read books by Jerry Falwell and Dinesh D’Souza in an attempt to see the world through his eyes.

There was also the problem with the money. By the time I started writing Now Speaks the Devil, Finders Keepers policy had ended. Now “Buddy” would have to keep the money and keep it a secret. This was a positive development. Now the story moved faster.

Further, as the members of the workshop I attended (conducted by James N. “Not the Author of A Million Little Pieces” Frey) pointed out, $10,000 was not enough money. The stakes would have to be raised. Ten thousand ballooned to two million.

In my first drafts, “Buddy” was a stiff-necked barking Fundamentalist. This did not go over well at all—rightly so. Readers were cheering too much for Thornton.

Though the criticism was right, I resisted it strongly, not just because I hated the Fundies (who were reaching their peak of national power then), but because I wanted to avoid making him a wan goody-two shoes. If I took that aspect out of him, I’d have to replace it with something else. What, I had no idea.

There were also tone problems. I was blanketed by the angry shadow of Sam Peckinpah at the time, giving the script a grim punchy tone that clashed badly with the inherent dark humor of the situation and my own strong comic instincts.

At the same time, I didn’t want a broad slapstick comedy. (That I’d take care of with Whackers.) Combining comedy with suspense requires careful stirring. Too much intensity in the suspense kills the humor while too much humor—or arch Po-mo campiness—can kill suspense. Young Frankenstein is hilarious, but it’s neither scary nor suspenseful. And Sam Peckinpah had only a minor touch for humor.


During the mid-1980s, feces started hitting my fan (some of it thrown by me). I became essentially homeless, sleeping on couches, living in hotels. “I get you,” one acquaintance put it. “Can’t cross the street without getting intercoursed.”

I wrote little during this time. Still I kept nudging at The Way (a title I didn’t like, and I bet you don’t either). At one point, I lost an entire draft off a large floppy disk. I was in another writer’s group, one I didn’t fit in with. (I have “fitting in” issues, as you may notice.)

One thing the group didn’t like about “Buddy” was his “weakness and ineffectuality.” He wasn’t “hero” enough. He had no weapons of his own with which fight Thornton, though I’d woven in a couple of supporting characters as allies (and who still remain, rough and charming). I was urged to refashion “Buddy” into an ex-Green Beret, armed with martial arts and automatic weapons: A Schwarzenegger vehicle in other words. Maybe they could attach Stallone. And then….

They’d nailed the problem, but not the solution. I could not imagine any war veteran acting so naively. And if he wasn’t naïve, then he’d be a criminal himself. By this point, my central theme—the loss of innocence—was pretty well baked in. Turning Buddy into an action toy would lead to an entirely different movie, a standard good vs. evil flick, rather than the good and evil story I wanted to tell, a very different proposition and a movie I wouldn’t be particularly interested in seeing, much less writing.

Finally, an idea bubbled up, inspiration unknown: What if “Buddy” were an amateur magician and toy shop proprietor? Now he’d have some skills and weapons to use against Thornton. Unconventional weapons, sure, but weapons just the same, clever ones, that reflected his character. That one decision further inspired a research visit to a Great America Park, near San Jose. There, I found my “Mt. Rushmore” climax.

One more Hitchcock truism to keep in mind: Imagination is more important than logic.

I was also finding the right tone between humor and serious suspense. The theme deepened and clarified, this story of a man clinging to childhood innocence far past the borders of wisdom. He was a character out of 1950s sitcoms, such as Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet or My Three Sons, living a blinkered life, siloed off from the rest of the world, fighting against the stream of time.

From that last show listed above, I lifted a new name for my protagonist: Chip.


In late 1990, I landed safely in an apartment in the Haight. Life settled down. I bought my first computer (using Wordstar). I sent a draft of the script to former magician, now noted stage hypnotist, John-Ivan Palmer for some tips on stage magic.

One day I was kicking around my desk, searching for a new title. I disliked The Way for that weak consonant and lack of relevance. My thoughts were also wandering around Thornton. I found it unnerving that such an evil man seemed to also to be some weird moral force—as though I were “giving the devil his due.”

The Devil’s Due . . . now there’s a title! A brief search revealed it had been used only once, in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Titles are not copyrightable and there was remote chance of confusing the marketplace.

The Devil’s Due: not just a good title, but a great title—neatly alliterative, three words that said everything about this script.

If only I could have kept it….


One of my roommates at the time was a San Francisco actor named Michael Anduz. He loved the script, calling it “European” in outlook. He had a point: The script is ironic, humorous, and unsentimental, expressing, I think, a rather stern morality.

Michael was eager to play Thornton. He brought in a colleague, Claudia Rosa, and together they also acted out a couple of scenes with Chip and Ruth, his wife. It kept getting better.

Finally, Michael and Claudia talked me into having a bunch of actors from their theatrical troupe over to read it through. (I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve forgotten the troupe’s name. Michael and Claudia, if you read this….). The reading was a banging success—readers and audience gasped and shuddered; they laughed, they booed Thornton and cheered and applauded when he met his spectacular end. Grins all around.

At least, I had the blueprint for a good movie.


And so, I sent The Devil’s Due out across the street, to the screenwriting marketplace, sending many dozens of query letters to agents, producers, and workshops, using the following high-concept pitch:

“The Most Naïve Man in the World finds $2 million in drug money in his garbage can. The Most Evil Bad Guy in the Universe wants it back. Or: Ozzie Nelson meets Alfred Hitchcock and Sergio Leone!”

Letters and scripts poured out, rejections poured back in. Many of the agents and other readers—a couple of them high up the ladder—enjoyed it, but as with much of my work, criticism ran the gamut: I was either standing up or sitting down too much; or turning left or turning right. For some, it wasn’t “political” enough. For others too “political.” And some of course, wanted an easy “good vs. evil” movie, not a cautionary moral tale.

Finally, though, like all my work, no matter how carefully crafted and pitched, The Devil’s Due failed to smell of money. And without that, where Hollywood’s concerned, ya got nothin’.

In that matter, I was as innocent as Chip. The days of producing a movie just because it would be good and provide satisfaction to its producers and a smart decent-sized audience, had long gone. (As one producer, recently quoted in The New Yorker, put it, “Don’t send me anything good.”) “Little thrillers” like this are far beyond the capacity of the giants in Hollywood nowadays, with no improvement in sight.

I kept writing screenplays through the 1990s. They mostly got better. But I grew older, too old to be taken seriously by the mighty and youth-obsessed. Unfair, unjust, unwise, unartistic. But that’s how it is.


The Devil’s Due slept in the drawer for over twenty years. Now, thanks to the revolution in publishing, I can put it in the spotlight for you, at least as an e-book.

As with the last two scripts I published, Whackers and The Uglies, I am, once again, ruining my Hollywood career!

What Hollywood career? I was old news a dozen years ago and they don’t read old news down south. From my view, Hollywood has become so Stalinist, agents have to fill out a release to read a menu. They sure won’t download an independently published script.

It will never be bought, never be produced, never light up a darkened theater or living room; just the inside of your head. This is a good thing actually, in that it enables me to break away a little bit from standard screenwriting rules to make it more readable for you non-screenwriting folks.

One unwanted change was forced upon me—the title. In 2015, a minus-budget horror movie called The Devil’s Due escaped to theaters. (One of those movies where, if they paid me to see it, I’d buy a ticket to another movie instead.)

Though that Devil sank like a stone, I took no chances. I’ve had severe problems with The Uglies being confused with a popular series of dystopian YA novels with nearly the same title by Scott Westerfield. With an assist from my wife, Elizabeth, I found a new title: Now Speaks the Devil, a good one (but Lord, I miss the old one!)

All of the original cast who acted out the movie on the screen of my skull have either passed on or aged now. Mr. Van Cleef and the great Alan Rickman are gone; and Jack Nicholson’s a little long-toothed. Right now, that brand of easy confident villainy, whose ancestry also includes Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains and Zachery Scott, seems out of fashion. One current actor who could capture Thornton’s fatal glamour and power is Hugh Laurie. I like to think actors would be lining up around the block to audition to play Thornton.

For Chip—a more challenging role—the dream of Robert Redford or Rick Moranis has also gone gray. Matt Damon, or someone like him, bouncing with youthful charm and breathless innocence, would do a great job.

In the years since, my outlook on life has changed a bit. Even so, Now Speaks the Devil still glows and sparkles, bristling with noirish charm and hair-raising thrills. It deserves the sharp-eyed audience of sophisticated thriller fans I’m always aiming for.

Whatever the “issues” in this sophomore effort, you’ll have a good time (even if it is a screenplay). It’s not perfect, but perfection is a mug’s game anyway. As Chip Adams himself has to learn.

And now, it’s time for the Devil to speak.

Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield

Cover of Now Speaks the Devil by Cathi Stevenson/Bookcover Express; images by Adobe

Photo of Lee Van Cleef taken from
Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up, will be published by Ambler House later this Fall 2016. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. Burchfield is also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, and Now Speaks the Devil (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon and other online retailers. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. Another script, Dracula: King of Nightmares, inspired by the Bram Stoker classic, will also be out later this year. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and enjoys a few beers at his neighborhood tavern. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.