Imagine you’ve been travelling to a little seaside resort, year after year, for a regular vacation. You know its nooks and corners: its tea shops, wacky characters, hidden beaches, and all its foibles and glories. Then a friend tells you they’re going there… for the first time.
Awesome, right? In this hypothetical case, you’re not going to advise that newcomer to go to the drafty little pub with the perfectly workmanlike fish and chips and the tinny jukebox of hits from the fifties. Even if there was nothing wrong with the place, even you had a pretty good time there—even if time and circumstance made it unforgettable, that once, when you were fifteen—you’re still going to send new arrivals to the place up the road, the one you found a year later. The one with the perfect crispy fries and the tartar sauce that makes you hear competing choirs of angels, all singing Bohemian Rhapsody.
With Peter Straub’s writing, my early visits to the village began with Shadowland, Ghost Story, and Floating Dragon. Looping back, I caught up with his first two horror novels: Julia, and If You Could See Me Now. Being earlier works, these were less exciting for me: not as polished, not as powerful. They were the perfectly good drafty pub of the above analogy . . . but by then I was a devoted fan, all too happy to move on and devour The Talisman, Mystery, and Houses without Doors, and from there mostly keeping up with new releases.
This pattern of discovery was, initially, beyond my control: I was still a teenager, and was cadging from the pile of thrillers my mother brought home from the local used bookstore. I was getting to read Straub (and Tom Clancy, and Tom Robbins, and Robert Ludlum) as she picked up copies here and there. Eventually that proved too random and unsatisfying, and I started saving up my pennies and shelling out for the new Straub releases as they came out.
(And this is another source of my affection for this author: to this day, Straub remains one of the writers whose work continues to interest me and my mother, too. Our tastes have shifted, but we can still talk about him. This makes him quite the rare and enduring bird.)
Anyway. One of the things I realized when I wrote “Where to Start With Connie Willis” was that an essay of this sort is really an attempt to induce someone to fall in love with an author and their work, by recreating the initial infatuation conditions, while simultaneously optimizing the chances of seduction. It’s a delicate sort of trick when you’re talking about someone who’s been publishing fiction for decades, an author whose work you know well. Memory’s unreliable. Times have changed, and the roadmap you end up drawing for another might not be the route you actually took. You’re feeling your way, high-grading, and trying to create a tour that feels intuitively right. You’re digging through layers of happy reader nostalgia, unearthing the delight of discovery, and trying to soften any downbeats.
So how would I fine-tune my own discovery of Straub?
First, I do recommend starting with one of the straight-up ghost stories, the ones I gathered up in that second burst of reading. I didn’t fully appreciate If You Could See Me Now as a teen; the problems facing Miles Teagarden in it were, I think, too foreign to my experience. Too adult, frankly: failing at a doctoral dissertation and being widowed were simply outside my realm. But start there—because it’s a good book, and one that won’t hold up in comparison to to Shadowland (which I revisited in 2011 during my Great Eighties Horror reread, so there’s a whole write-up for you—click away!) After that, sink into the book that made Straub’s career: Ghost Story.
Ghost Story is more complex than the earlier novels, and, in terms of its story, more assured than Shadowland. The latter leaves a reader wondering if there might be more: cards hidden for a sequel, or unanswered questions left, deliberately, within the reader’s mind. It’s an unsettling novel: Ghost Story, meanwhile, is flat-out scary. (It’s on Flavorwire’s 50 Scariest Books of All Time, for one thing.)
The book begins with a sort of call and response:
“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…”
Ghost Story is the story of the Chowder Society, four men who have known each other since their teens. They’ve prospered and grown old in Milburn, New York, and when they get together, they like to sit on their comfortable, timeworn butts and spin ghost stories for each other. But when one of them dies—and not peacefully, in his bed, as they’d all prefer to go—their spooky cigar-and-scotch ritual gets a bit threadbare. Truth is, they all know the worst thing their fellow Chowders have done… because they did it together, back when they were young men.
These novels move nicely, one into the other. Straub’s prose, long one of my favorite things about his writing, develops ever more grace and depth, and each of these three stories is more tightly crafted than the previous. Ghost Story also has a show-stopper of an ending, one that’s disturbing, hair-raising, and perfectly inevitable. Here’s what Dark Echo has to say about it.
Next, I’d see if I could get my hands on one of the short fiction collections, preferably Houses without Doors. If you’re not up for the whole collection, just read two: “The Buffalo Hunter,” a surreal exploration of one dedicated book-lover’s experience of becoming literally immersed in the novels he’s reading, and “A Short Guide to the City.” They’re bizarre, challenging, and delightful, and they’ll clear your head—or possibly wreck it—without taking weeks.
The road forks here. There two routes, I think, that you can take into the remaining books. At this point, if you want to stick with the horror genre, what I really want to do is recommend you revisit Stephen King’s It before jumping into Floating Dragon. But It is long, so long, so very very very OMG long . . . so if you just want to glance at a recap, that’s fine.
You see, it’s impossible to really paint a picture of Straub without getting some King onto the palette. It isn’t merely the fact that they wrote two novels together; their influence on each other, and the parallels in their work, are striking. In It, King takes us to Derry, Maine, a town that among other things has had a recurring serial killer problem… someone starts butchering the local kids about every thirty years or so, in a cycle that starts with a vicious, almost sacrificial killing and ends with some kind of horrific slaughter. In Floating Dragon, we go to Hampstead, Connecticut, an affluent suburb where… surprise! There’s a mysterious slaughter every thirty years or so, culminating in a disaster. Both novels feature the coalescence of alternate families who oppose the predator battening on the town. In It, it’s the seven preteens of the Loser’s Club. In Floating Dragon‘s Hampstead, the battle falls to a quartet of people descended from the town’s original founders.
Floating Dragon preceded the first King/Straub collaborative novel, The Talisman. It, meanwhile, came afterward. That and the similarities I’ve mentioned makes them fun books to compare, side-by-side. In Floating Dragon, the disaster that befalls Hampstead kicks off with a chemical spill: there is always a chance that the lion’s share of what’s happening to the townsfolk has been caused by hallucinogenic toxins. Everything in Floating Dragon is just a shade restrained: the founders number four to the Loser’s Club’s seven, and they aren’t all the same age, so they have a greater breadth of experience to bring to bear on their investigation of the town’s history. Still, there’s a battered wife in both stories, and a transformative event that bonds the group in their final battle. (Spoiler – in Floating Dragon, it’s not preteen group sex!) For this, for its tidier narrative and the intense, claustrophobic sense of a town caught in nightmare and abandoned to die, I would argue that Floating Dragon is the better of the two novels.
Then, from Floating Dragon, proceed to The Talisman itself… and move on in any direction you like. You’ll have a good sense of the terrain, so go wherever you please.
What about the other fork in the road? That one leads to the Blue Rose trilogy, a loose group of novels that are more properly suspense than horror, and if you’re taking that path, I must recommend Straub’s tour-de-force mystery novel, Mystery.
Lest you think I am in any way objective, let me say up front this is my favorite Straub book, and indeed my favorite mystery novel. It is deeply embedded in my writer brain, I’ve read it countless times, and when I work on mysteries, it’s one of the touchstones for everything I’m trying to achieve. Mystery is less about the whodunnit and more about what Tom Pasmore, its youthful protagonist, will do when he decodes a pattern of events, going back years before his birth, that have enfolded and shaped his entire existence.
Tom is a sort of unofficial crown prince of a Caribbean island nation called Mill Walk (this gets retconned in other novels, but let’s take this book by itself for now), the grandson of the government’s right hand man. As a kid, he had a serious car accident that left him trapped in a body cast with lots of time for reading. By the time he’s ambulatory again, he’s also hopelessly bookish, poor lad, and has made a friend of the weird and reclusive old private investigator—the real life inspiration, it turns out, for radio’s The Shadow—who lives across the street from his exceedingly posh home.
The old fellow, whose name is Lamont Von Helitz, is off and on working on a cold case that thwarted him years before: the murder of a lady named Jeanine Thielman. The interesting thing is that Tom had seen a newspaper article about Thielman just before his accident… in fact, it was what sent him across the island, and into danger. Is he a natural born detective? As Tom begins to walk again, the two men sift through Lamont’s old case evidence, hunting for a killer who, naturally, doesn’t have any interest in being found, and whose ties to a thoroughly corrupt island administration mean there are lots of people who want the buried bodies of the past bricked up and forgotten.
And now, having piled all these wonderful books on your TBR shelf, I will stop. There’s more to be discovered within the village that is Peter Straub, but this will give you an outline and a tour of some conspicuous delights. The rest—Koko, for example, The Hellfire Club, and Lost Boy Lost Girl—I leave you to find for yourself. Enjoy exploring!
A.M. Dellamonica has a book’s worth of fiction up here on Tor.com, including the time travel horror story “The Color of Paradox.” There’s also “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti,” the second of a series of stories called The Gales. Both this story and its predecessor, “Among the Silvering Herd,” are prequels to her Tor novel, Child of a Hidden Sea.
If sailing ships, pirates, magic and international intrigue aren’t your thing, though, her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. Or check out her sexy novelette, “Wild Things,” a tie-in to the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.