Peter Straub, a novelist whose depiction of the supernatural in books like Julia, Ghost Story, and The Talisman often felt too big and too fantastical to really be defined by the limits of the horror genre, has died. This comes from The New York Times, which says that Straub’s wife, Susan Straub, confirmed the news and explained that he died at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York from “complications after breaking his hip.” Straub was 79.
Straub was born in Milwaukee in 1943, and as a kid he developed a stutter and had to relearn how to walk after being hit by a car and nearly killed. He became a dedicated reader and studied English at the University Of Wisconsin-Madison (the New York Times obit notes that he lived across the street from musician Steve Miller) before getting a mater’s degree from Columbia University. In the ‘60s, he moved to Ireland with his wife to work toward a doctorate, but instead he wrote and published his first novel, Marriages.
Straub later said that he wasn’t a fan of his first book, telling Zack Handlen for The A.V. Club in 2010 that it was “full of adolescent errors and real aimlessness” and that he has never allowed it to be republished because of that. With his third novel, Julia, Straub began to play with the supernatural, and though he didn’t intend it as such, the book was deemed a horror novel simply because it involved a ghost.
Julia was a hit, and though Straub continued to gently push back against the horror label, he began to use more supernatural elements in his writing (especially with books like the best-selling Ghost Story). The New York Times obit quotes him as saying that he wanted to take the horror genre and “pull it upstairs a little bit,” not by rejecting it outright but by trying to “make a little more of the material than has been made of it in the recent past.” Julia was later adapted into the Mia Farrow film The Haunting Of Julia (a.k.a. Full Circle) and Ghost Story was later adapted into a movie starring Fred Astaire.
It was around that time in the ‘70s that Straub became friends with another hotshot writer who was helping to redefine and repopularize the horror genre: Stephen King. King told the Times that Straub was “not only a literary writer with a poetic sensibility, but he was readable,” comparing him to Philip Roth “though he wrote about fantastic things.” King and Straub collaborated on The Talisman in 1984, a dark fantasy book about a boy traveling through an alternate universe version of our world. Though somewhat critically divisive, the book was a huge hit (at least partially because both King and Straub were arguably at the height of their powers), and it later spawned a sequel called Black House that became a tie-in with The Dark Tower, Stephen King’s other universe-hopping dark fantasy series.
A third Straub/King collaboration was always supposedly right on the cusp of happening, with Straub telling The A.V. Club that the two of them had talked about writing a third book “now and again” and would probably sit down and work it out within a few years. The third book never ended up materializing, but Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer recently signed on to develop a Talisman adaptation for Steven Spielberg (who has held onto the rights since before the book was published).
Straub’s final novel, A Dark Matter, was published in 2010 and won a Bram Stoker award from the Horror Writers Association. He is survived by his wife, his daughter (novelist Emma Straub), his son (who runs a production company in charge of adapting his father’s work), and three grandchildren.