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.

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