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By now, Peter Straub knows a little bit about darkness. After a series of poetry collections, Straub published his first novel, Marriages, in 1973, but he didn’t make his name until he wrote his 1979 novel Ghost Story, an unsettling mash-up of literary charm, cheap scares, and thematic ambition. The book was a national bestseller, and in his 1981 non-fiction book Danse Macabre, Stephen King called it one of the best horror novels of the latter half of the 20th century. Straub and King later collaborated on the fantasy novel The Talisman in 1984, and its sequel, Black House, in 2001. In three decades and change, Straub has penned bestselling novels and short-story collections, won a shelf or two’s worth of writing awards, and even done the occasional guest spot on the television soap opera One Life To Live. His newest book, A Dark Matter, tells the story of a group of young men and women seduced into meddling with forces they can’t possibly understand. Straub recently talked with The A.V. Club recently about the danger of false gurus, the challenges of unconventional storytelling, and the peculiar persistence of bad memories.
The A.V. Club: Where did Spenser Mallon, the con-man guru who kicks off the major event of A Dark Matter, come from?
Peter Straub: I don’t know exactly if I was attracted to him, but he was very much based on two characters who came to the University Of Wisconsin in Madison when I was an undergraduate there. It may have been 1964. Things were warming up in the country, and in Vietnam. Things were beginning to shake and kind of shudder. There were convulsions that were going through society. And these guys were thrown up by the waves of the future that were already reaching us. They came in the guise of teachers. They were trying to explain dark, deep, paranoid, conspiratorial, sacred things.
I was once told that a very interesting, compelling, wise character was going to turn up in a certain student’s apartment, on a certain time one evening, and I was welcome to come and take advantage of the experience of hearing this guy. I felt I had nothing to lose, I wanted to hear this thing, see what’s happening. Here was this guy who was Spenser Mallon. He was 35, he had thick, rough blond hair, he was suntanned, he was wearing a safari jacket, he looked like he’d been all over the world. He clearly was vastly more experienced than anyone else in the room. He had a line, he had his spiel. He did mention that once, when he was in Tibet, he’d seen a man chop another man’s hand off in a bar, and that the blood had run down the bar in a sheet, and this seemed to mean something tremendous. He also mentioned The Tibetan Book Of The Dead over and over. I remember girls inching closer toward him, as they had some questions, because they were fascinated by him and didn’t want him to leave without them. He must’ve spoken for an hour or an hour and a half, and I went away not quite sure what I’d seen, or what it had been about. It seemed to me that it was really interesting, but perhaps absurd?
A little while later, another guy like that appeared, and he spoke to my concerns—my roommate and I actually let him stay with us for about three weeks. And he never stopped talking about the “great currents” that run through the world, and the oil cartels, and the White House, and the Kennedy assassination. But he also never did anything but eat our food and pray and try and hit on our girlfriends or the other women that came in and out of the place. We got thoroughly sick of him and we kicked him out, and he didn’t believe it. He stood in front of our apartment building, not very glorious I assure you, in fact kind of crummy, lying in the street in Madison with his bags around, with a hangdog look on his face, saying, “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me! Where am I supposed to go?” [Laughs.] I had no idea where he was going.
Anyhow, these guys never quite left me, and as time went on in the ’60s, there were more and more of them, and they rather darkened. That is, eventually these guys turned into advocates of the most serious kind of violence and anarchy, and they disturbed me greatly. So I was thinking, I could write a little novella, this was my plan when I started, of 90 pages, and it was centered on a kind of experiment that maybe almost worked too well, and did change the world for a minute and a half, which had very ill effects on all of its participants, and that would be incited or ignited by one of these figures. I planned out this marvelous little novella that I wanted to write—I made a very precise outline for it. It was going to be nine parts, three sections each divided into three. When I started out, my first 10-page section ended up being a hundred pages. So there went my beautiful novella. From that point on, I just wrote and invented on the wing. It was a much longer book when it came to the point where I was able to submit. In editing it was improved hugely, and cut down by about 300 pages.
AVC: Speaking of how your past inspired this book, your work in general deals a lot with the way the past drains down into the present. What did A Dark Matter add to this discussion?
PS: Well, it added kind of a visionary aspect to it. These people really did see something way back then. They can’t agree exactly on what it was, they can’t even remember what they all did beforehand, but they all saw something quite extraordinary and life-altering. I kind of like that. I didn’t realize, even after working on the book for a year and half or two years, that I was working my way toward these memories, these particular statements from three of the participants. What I did kind of have in mind was that the character named Jason Boatman would deliver himself of a tale that was really mysterious, and alarming or distressing, because it seemed to question the whole idea of meaning itself. It seemed to me that eventually that’s what I was talking about, meaning and the lack of meaning, or meaning and the absence of meaning. That absence of meaning was a kind of hell.
AVC: A Dark Matter has one event told from three perspectives. So the challenge would be in making it fresh every time?
PS: Yeah, that’s right. I was immensely charmed by the material I discovered in Cornelius Agrippa [a German occult writer of the 15th and 16th centuries], on the spirits of Mercury. I was leafing through these immense books of magic and writings by Henry Cornelius Agrippa without finding anything that really snagged my attention. Then finally I came to this chapter about the spirits of Mercury, and it was just completely delightful, this king and queen made of mercury or some shiny surface, and the red giant gesticulating, and an old man and an old woman on a white landscape—it all sounded really colorful and startling, and I thought if I put that on the page, it would make people stop and take it in. Because nobody had ever really seen pictures of things like that, depictions of such things, in novels before, I don’t think. So I was charmed by it. Then as time went on, I realized I couldn’t just describe the same thing over and over, much as I happened to like it, that I had to vary it. And I was aware of course, all the time, that I was moving toward the final statement by Lee Truax Harwell, The Eel [from A Dark Matter], whose statement had to be much bigger and grander and more visionary than the others. When I came to the end of that, I was pleased with it. I thought I’d done a good job with Lee’s statement.
AVC: A Dark Matter has an unusually loose narrative style, and your work in general seems to avoid traditional genre patterns. Is this a natural development in your writing?
PS: Let me think about that. There’s probably a difference between the original book and the final version. The submission copy probably looked a little more conventional, because it was greatly padded out with very strange, colorful, and bizarre material, and in some cases rather dark material, which I deleted. However, I’ve written books that moved kind of semi-straightforward, I’m thinking of a novel called Mystery and another called The Throat. They kind of moved through a semi-normal world, in a semi-normal way. This time around, I was interested in stacking things up. There’s an extraordinary story [in A Dark Matter] a woman in Rehoboth Beach told Lee Truax, in a room where she was invited to horrify Lee, and the only requirement was that she tell the truth. She tells this extraordinary tale about having been blinded by a man, and meeting after he gets out of prison, having an assignation with him, the man torments her, she kills him—this is a lie to cover what really happened, Lee Truax later realizes. And all this story is told to us by, like, three removes. Lee Harwell is lying in bed, he can’t turn off his life, he’s remembering a conversation he had with his friend Don Olson in the hotel bar, in the lounge in his hotel in Madison, and he’s remembering that. And in that conversation, he explains the story that Lee Truax, his wife, The Eel, had told him, about her visit to Rehoboth Beach. I liked filtering in and out of those various levels, because it seemed to me to get a kind of emotional effect that way that was otherwise unavailable. Also, I like showing that I have chops. [Laughs.]
AVC: Horror tends to punish characters who break the rules. Do you think that trope still has value?
PS: Oh, I’m sure that needs to be undermined—it’s far too black and white to be of any use. I would think occasionally horror would reward people who color outside the lines and break the rules, because in that way, very often one acquires insight, or moves one’s status in the world up to another category, not always for the ill. I’m not saying any of this very well, I think. It isn’t a dualistic category, there are no strict black and whites in horror if it’s any good. That is to say, there’s no direct confrontation between actual good and actual evil. Everything is much richer if we understand that these quantities, good and evil, are distributed on a spectrum, throughout everybody. Where you land on the spectrum is not your destiny, either, but you have to deal with that, you have to make choices based on it.
I was once told by a very well-respected editor, “Category horror is about good vs. evil, that’s all it is.” And I thought, “That’s why it’s no good. That’s why I find that stuff unreadable.” One is looking for something that’s a little more emotionally complex and nuanced. Otherwise—because we’re talking about fiction, aren’t we? We’re talking about novels, not just simple little stories for children.
AVC: You have a substantial body of work out there by now. Is there anything you’ve learned over the years that you wish you’d known when you first started writing?
PS: [Laughs.] I guess so. I wish I’d known at the beginning that all I really had to do is trust myself. Everything would work out as if by magic once I actually leaned back into my imagination and just let it work, and not question it and not fret about it. Of course, one has to do considerable clean-up and rewriting afterward, by and large. But you cannot overestimate the role of intuition in fiction writing. Or the role of accident or randomness. These things are very central. This is never really admitted. You have to cover the pages. You have to have those people do things. And the things they do have to be relevant to the entire concern. The specific things they do don’t much matter, you just have to have them do something that counts. If I’d known then, it would’ve helped a lot. It would’ve helped free me from the dreadful iron-bound conviction that I had from being an English major that great works of art were made in the classical sense, with hammer and tongs, that they were beat out of the resistant material by an unhesitating master craftsman. That there was next to no hesitation, that these people always know exactly what they’re doing, and therefore they can create Madame Bovary, Bleak House, etc. The history of writing is nothing like that. It’s a lot of groping your way forward in the dark, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be, because that’s the only way to discover things instead of simply inventing them. Here endeth the sermon.
AVC: What about the converse of that, is there anything you wish you could forget?
PS: I wish I could go back and re-write my first novel for the first time. Because I really didn’t know what I was doing, and although it was published, it is, after all this time, kind of an embarrassment.
AVC: This would be Marriages?
PS: Yeah, Marriages. I still list it, maybe I shouldn’t, but after all I did write it, and it was published. But I have never allowed it to be re-published, because it was full of adolescent errors and real aimlessness.
AVC: There’s a sense in your work of striving for something beyond simple conflicts. Does that risk still give you a charge?
PS: Yeah, it’s very much that. I always think about the books I’m doing in pretty much the same way. It doesn’t—that they might be thought of as genre works doesn’t concern me at all. I’m simply trying to write that particular novel as well as that particular novel can be written. I want to listen to what it is telling me, trying to figure out what it wants to do as much as what I want to do with it. There’s a negotiation that’s constant and ongoing between me and the material I’m working with, because I’m trying to listen to it. Very often, when I re-read the first hundred pages of a book, when I’m about on page 300, I will suddenly understand, as if struck by lightning, why I did certain things, why certain people said certain things, that I didn’t get at all when I wrote ’em, as it has been planned in advance, here on page 300, bam, that moment’s really going to accomplish something. It’s always an attempt at climbing a mountain. It’s always an attempt to write a really good novel. I don’t know how many of the people classified with me feel the same way. I know Stephen King feels exactly the same way. His approach isn’t exactly what mine is, but it sure as hell is a battle of an approach.
AVC: Speaking of Stephen King, do you two plan to collaborate again?
PS: I think there will be. Stephen and I have talked about this, now and again. I would say, actually, that was in place from the ending of Black House. If you read Black House, the ending says, “We’re not done. There’s another one coming.” I think in something like two years, Steve and I will get together and really start to work out together what that book is about. But a lot of that is already given to us by the ending of Black House, which makes it irresistible. It’ll be nice to go back and visit Jack, and that’ll be enough. We’ll all be happy with it.