As an aspiring writer, you often don’t realize the influences certain authors have over your developing style and voice. You’re busy reading books and stories which really excite you, writing away in your own little world, and in many ways, you can’t see the forest for the trees.
I’ve been especially prone to that over the years. I tend to read many books simultaneously at frenzied paces (I’ve often said I read like other people breathe), and it’s sometimes hard to keep track of where I draw my inspirations from. It was once said Rod Serling was the same. When Ray Bradbury actually accused Serling of stealing his work for The Twilight Zone, some said Serling could never completely deny it, because he’d read so many things so quickly, he always had difficulty attributing a source to his story ideas.
Not too long ago, I re-read a novel which I remembered adoring in college, Peter Straub’s Floating Dragon. Not only did I find the novel just as striking as I’d recalled (even more so, given twenty years of “relative” maturity added to the reader), I experienced a shocking revelation. I’d tried to write this novel, over the past ten years. Several times, in fact.
It was a humbling, remarkable realization. The mixed narrative of first-person meta-author intruding into a third-person limited narrative, with occasional slips into third-person omniscience? Yeah, definitely. I’d absolutely tried to write this exact novel, several times over. The only other time I’ve experienced that realization was when, right around the same time, I re-read Needful Things by Stephen King, and realized that, indeed, I’d tried to re-write that novel, also.
I can’t think of a better compliment to an author and their influence.
We all harbor “ghosts” from our past. Former selves. Family members long gone. Loves cherished or now despised. Victories, defeats, snapshots of nostalgia or despair.
Every place we used to live in or frequent is populated with the ghosts of who we were. We’re all haunted, because we all have memories. Ghost stories fueled by the power of memory are powerful examinations of the human psyche, examining the hold history has over us. The well-told ghost story confirms the fears we all struggle with. The past isn’t dead and gone. It isn’t resolved. It’s still there, waiting in the darkness for the right time to rear its head.
Peter Straub’s novels Ghost Story, If You Could See Me Now and Floating Dragon stand as three of the best expressions of this fear, and proved fundamental in developing my thoughts on “hauntings” and “ghosts.”
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
“I won’t tell you that, but I’ll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me…the most dreadful thing…”
And so begins Ghost Story. Six men—Frederick Hawthorne, Sears James, Lawrence Benedickt and John Jaffrey—spend a year after the death of their friend Edward Wanderley telling each other ghost stories, or stories about “the worst thing” they’d ever done. Straub blends several horror tropes together in Ghost Story, offering an existential explanation not only for ghosts but also vampires and werewolves, but the unifying thread running throughout is this: you can’t escape the past. Its consequences are far-reaching and exert power over not only you, but also the generations which follow.
If You Could See Me Now invokes this power of history in a more personal way. Miles Teagarden grew up a troubled youth skirting the edge of the law. The only person he ever felt connected to was his likewise troubled cousin, Allison Greening. Allison’s mysterious drowning stains Miles’ life. Despite moving on to a somewhat successful career teaching college literature, he can’t leave the past behind—especially considering the mysterious circumstances of Allison’s death. She’d been found in a rock quarry where they’d been skinny-dipping, drowned, Miles found unconscious on the shore.
He’s never been able to get over Allison’s death, or the clinging guilt and mystery surrounding it. Especially the flitting sensation that someone else had been at the quarry that night, watching them from a distance. This guilt ruins his marriage and leaves him adrift. Making matters worse, not long after their divorce, Miles’ wife drowns in a swimming accident.
Intensifying Miles’s complex was Allison’s promise that, should neither of them find love within twenty years, they would return to Arden and be together. On the pretense of needing to “get away” to write an academic critique of D. H. Lawrence, Miles heads out to his deceased grandmother’s farm, now owned by his other cousin, Duane. His plan to write this book, of course, is nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse to keep his appointment with Allison Greening, whom he believes will keep her promise from beyond the grave.
Leaving aside the novel’s outcome, If You Could See Me Now is an even more powerful example of the past exerting its influence over the present. Even if Allison Greening never does make her appearance, (and I’m not saying she does, or that she doesn’t) Straub offers a compelling story about a man completely ruled by the past.
Floating Dragon, the novel which so impacted me I tried to write something very much like it, is a wonderfully complex novel which takes this dominance of the past and its influence over the present and expands it over an entire community. For generations, the suburb of Hampstead, Connecticut, has been tormented by the lingering spirit of Gideon Winter, a man murdered vigilante-style centuries before by Hampstead’s founding families, for suspicion of child murder. Over the generations, this malevolent spirit finds outlets through serial killers, town uprisings, mass killings and strange outbursts of violence.
The present of the novel kicks off in a seemingly unrelated chemical accident several counties away, which sends clouds of toxic gas toward Hampstead. The spirit of Winter (ironically, nicknamed “The Dragon” and co-opting a gas code-named DRG), uses this as the perfect opportunity to once again rear its head and cause chaos within Hampstead. In typical Straub fashion, this spirit doesn’t simply goad people into doing inexplicably violent things. It knows them. Their pasts, their secrets, their private anguishes. In this case, a spirit from the past invokes the past in specific individual cases to bring about ruin.
Why is Gideon Winter’s spirit suddenly bent on destroying Hampstead, once and for all? The past, of course. For the first time since Winter’s death hundreds of years before, the descendants of the founding fathers who killed him have returned to Hampstead. This is the trigger. These figures from the past, unlocking a demon from the past to wreck havoc on the present.
In much of Straub’s work, the past is very often the heart of his stories’ horror, and the reach of that past is unforgiving, unrelenting, a malicious spirit from which there is no escape.
I read Shadowland many years after Floating Dragon. At that point I still didn’t consider myself a horror fan or someone who wanted to write horror (somehow, loving Stephen King’s stories and wanting to write like Stephen King didn’t count as wanting to write horror), so I picked up this novel—boasting the tagline “The Ultimate Masterpiece of Modern Horror”—with a bit of trepidation. I still hadn’t read much horror at the time, and didn’t understand the kind of stories the genre had to offer.
Shadowland quickly enthralled me. Whatever I was expecting, this tale of magic and mystery (probably the best way to describe Straub’s work in general) left me breathless. The story of two boys—Tom Flanagan and Del Nightingale—learning magic from Del’s uncle quickly sprawled into a tale of magic, history, and folklore. Filled with rich backstory stretching through World War I, and the kind of prose which made me want to become an English teacher, it also appealed to me on a very basic level. It was the story of a nephew desperate to live up to his uncle’s reputation, only to discover that his friend is the source of his uncle’s designs, and not him, and how that twists the darkness inside him.
It would be some time before I encountered Straub’s work again, but when I read The Throat and then dove into the rest of the Blue Rose trilogy (Mystery and Koko), I realized I’d discovered my favorite kind of writer—the kind who could paint huge stories on sprawling tapestries which seemed like worlds onto themselves.
Also, for the first time, I encountered Peter Straub’s meta-fictional author Timothy Underhill. Call me a neophyte, but the thought of blurring the lines between an a author and a fictional character and story and reality absolutely astounded me (and became the direct inspiration—for good or for ill—for Gavin Patchett, my fictional alter-ego in my fictional town of Clifton Heights). Straub did it so effortlessly and naturally, I’m still half-convinced Timothy Underhill actually exists, and that he co-wrote those novels with Straub.
The Blue Rose trilogy also, for the first time, showed me how “slippery” the marketing term “horror” was, and how almost any kind of story could posses elements of “horror.” This far-reaching epic story ranging from the tragedy and the violence of the Vietnam War, to the tribulations of growing up, to the hunt for a serial killer and a string of murders, went past the mere label of “horror.” Like Shadowland, it offered so much more. This was life breathed onto the page, but it also possessed all the necessary ingredients for powerful and entertaining story-telling. Suspense, mystery, action, and, yes, horror.
I encountered Timothy Underhill again in lost boy, lost girl and in the night room. lost boy, lost girl, to this day, stands as the most emotionally powerful “horror” novel I’ve ever read, and it’s begging for a re-read soon. Timothy Underhill’s nephew disappears shortly after his mother’s mysterious suicide. In his investigation, Underhill learns that not only is a pedophilic serial killer on the loose in his old home town, but before he disappeared, his nephew Mark had become obsessed with an abandoned house in the neighborhood in which he believed the serial killer was not only hiding, but was also using to torture and kill his victims.
lost boy, lost girl was one of the first novels which really, truly whispered to me what horror should mean to me. In lesser hands it’s merely a novel about the hunt for serial pedophile/killer who sexually abused his victims before killing them. In Straub’s hands, it becomes more than just a dark mystery, it becomes a spiritual journey. He deftly wove together supernatural elements with the hunt for an earth-bound killer, all the while hinting that supernatural, spiritual forces move behind everything good and bad in this world. There’s a scene near the end in which one of the killer’s victims—now lost as a spirit (hence the title, lost boy, lost girl)—reclaims the site of her ruination in an intimate, sensual, yet spiritual fashion which blew my mind and crushed my heart. To this day, I’ve never read a scene more powerful or affecting.
in the night room also features Timothy Underhill, and it as well served as a huge inspiration for me (again, for good or bad, Clifton Heights and Gavin Patchett owe a large debt to Straub’s work). In it, Timothy Underhill learns that his current manuscript may or may not be actually happening as he writes it. To say much more about this novel would spoil it, so I won’t. But, again, this novel proved revelatory for me, a huge milestone. Again, you could claim I was only so astounded by this blurring of lines between fiction and reality because I wasn’t well-read in the horror genre at the time, and such a claim would be correct.
Even so, I fell in love with the concept (as anyone who has read my Clifton Heights series well knows). The idea that writing is so powerful it creates its own reality speaks to me on a deep, fundamental level. It puts into fictive form the truth that we who love stories hold close to our hearts: that fictional constructs speak truth into the world, and are sometimes more real than the “real world.”
I could go on about Straub’s work. His masterful collection, Houses Without Doors. His novel Mr. X, a novel of supernatural destiny and the link between the polar forces of good and evil, which is also somehow a riff off cosmic horror and Lovecraft. The existential power of A Dark Matter. The works I’ve discussed, however, have had the most impact on me, and have also been re-read multiple times. I dare say I’m not the same for those readings, and this is a very, very good thing.
Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, and his most recent short story collection, Things You Need, was released September, 2018. He’s currently working on his first novel. For free monthly fiction, book reviews, YouTube commentaries, and three free ebooks, visit www.kevinlucia.blogspot.com and sign up for his monthly email newsletter.
1 thought on “Revelations: Peter Straub”
Floating Dragon was the first Straub novel that I read. After reading King for years (and only King) Floating Dragon was a revelatory experience. It immediately became my favorite horror novel. The combination of dark fantasy elements and outright horror were new to me and I never quite looked at King in the same light again. Some years later, I finally read Ghost Story and the reaction was the same. It floored me how powerful a horror novel could be. After reading this, I want to go back and re-read my Straub collection.