Dead Trees: Peter Straub’s The Hellfire Club

Author Peter Straub
Peter Straub

No one — no one — has ever done it better than Peter Straub. I admit that some of his work leaves me a little bit cold, but when Straub is on, he is on.

Not everyone agrees. I’ve heard a lot of people say they can’t read Peter Straub, or that he simply isn’t for them. The thing about his writing is, it takes effort. Most worthwhile things do require determination and patience, but the effort pays off. He isn’t an easy writer, but the rewards are well worth the investment.

Like many, I started with Ghost Story. I had seen the movie, rather liked it, and I had heard about the book. After Stephen King’s enthusiastic recommendation in Danse Macabre, I had to read the novel. I was immediately engrossed, and at the time I felt like I had never read a better book. Straub’s blend of literary allusions and ghastly horror makes Ghost Story one of the true masterpieces of horror.

I went straight on to Shadowland, which I liked at least as much as Ghost Story. Shadowland could be described as dark fantasy, along the lines of Neil Gaiman or Clive Barker. No offense to either of these estimable gentlemen, but Peter Straub’s intoxicating magical horror story has them beat.

cover of Floating Dragon by Peter StraubThere was no stopping me at that point, so I immediately launched into Floating Dragon, which at that point has just been released in paperback. Straub pulled out all the stops with this one. Floating Dragon is a mad, grotesquely beautiful novel where the author intentionally took horror as far as he possibly could. It was a massive bestseller, but Straub has said that horror fans hated the book. Well, there’s no bigger horror fan than me, and I adore Floating Dragon. It remains my favorite of his works, and it easily resides in my list of top five horror novels.

I went back and read If You Could See Me Now, which is an underrated gem. Julia is a classy, well-written ghost story. I even read Marriages and Under Venus, both of which are interesting, but Straub’s full potential was ahead.

There was a long wait between Floating Dragon and Peter Straub’s next novel, Koko. There was some short fiction in the interim, with Blue Rose being a real standout. Koko was worth the wait, and it was the first novel of a loose series of books and stories that began with Blue Rose. With these books — Koko, Mystery, The Throat — Straub examined the depths of human horror, rather than the supernatural subjects he had been writing about.

The nineties were a busy time for Peter Straub. There were four novels from him, and he has never been the kind of writer to crank out book after book.

cover of The Hellfire Club by Peter StraubOne that doesn’t get discussed a lot is The Hellfire Club, from 1995. It’s more of a suspense story than a horror tale, but I think it is one of Straub’s best, and most accessible, novels.

The Hellfire Club is a literary story, and by that I mean that it deals with the love, or perhaps obsession, with books. In Straub’s book, a fantasy novel called Night Journey was conceived at a literary retreat in the 1930s. People nearly worship the book and its author, and mysterious events (as well as violence and murder) surround the book’s conception. In the story’s present, horrifying murders linked to Night Journey are happening in a small town where the publisher lives.

The Hellfire Club has so many riches for the reader. It’s a story of how fiction affects the lives of readers. It’s a serial killer novel of sorts. There’s a strong yet damaged woman protagonist. A capable and enigmatic hero who could have walked out of an F. Paul Wilson story. Topping it all off is an antagonist who is more fascinating than Hannibal Lecter ever was. Did I mention that The Hellfire Club is also very funny? I laughed out loud numerous times, which is rare for me.

I’m not a fast reader, but I am a steady one. I read every day, and I usually read at least one book a week. It took me two weeks to complete my reread of The Hellfire Club. Each sentence is such a marvel. I had to take my time and savor every bit of the book. The Hellfire Club not only holds up twenty-five years later, I found it to be even richer than I did when I read the book in ’95.

I always recommend Peter Straub to readers. Some take to his work. Others do not. I hope readers will give him a chance, and The Hellfire Club would be an excellent place to start.

Also, it’s Halloween time, and horror fans are breaking out the seasonable books. I also strongly recommend my very favorite piece of Halloween fiction, Peter Straub’s novella, Pork Pie Hat. It’s an easy, quick read, but it also packs a deliciously scary punch. It’s a perfect October treat.

Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of TerrorSir Graves Ghastly PresentsThe Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon LoverThe Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. Cemetery Dance recently released his collection He Who Types Between the Rows: A Decade of Horror Drive-In. He can be reached at horrordrivein@yandex.com, and at www.horrordrive-in.com.

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