Peter Straub is no stranger to the supernatural. He has written such unsettling novels as Ghost Story, Floating Dragon and Shadowland. He co-authored The Talisman and its sequel Black House with Stephen King, and his horror fiction has earned such honors as the Bram Stoker Award, World Fantasy Award and the International Horror Guild Award.
But to Straub, 73, the perversity of human nature provides the ripest fodder for truly disturbing stories.
“What people are willing to do to one another is pretty awe-inspiring,” he says. “Human beings will justify almost any actions. They’ll bring it in line as moral or at least forgivable behavior.”
Straub’s latest collection, Interior Darkness: Selected Stories (Doubleday, $28.95) reflects that astute outlook. Borrowing works from Houses Without Doors, Magic Terror and 5 Stories as well as three “uncollected” stories, Interior Darkness stares unflinchingly into the black hole of human depravity. In the first story, Blue Rose — around which Straub built the novel trilogy Koko, Mystery and The Throat — a family passes down a legacy of bullying and abuse and 10-year-old Harry begins to understand his penchant for violence. In The Juniper Tree, a boy is molested in a movie theater. In the black, grisly comedy Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff, a revenge fantasy goes horribly awry when a jealous husband hires two torturers to punish his unfaithful wife. “We could tell you stories to curl your hair,” Mr. Clubb tells the unfortunate husband — and then proceeds to do so.
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The success of Straub, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife, indicates we continue to have a taste for such dark material. Why?
“It has to do with the messiness of common humanity,” he says. “Despite our best efforts, we are all deeply flawed. The only way to have a moral life is to acknowledge those flaws and not forget about them or deny them.”
Q. How did you go about choosing works for a single anthology?
I had wanted ideally to do a book of collected stories. I knew it might be a pretty fat book. Then my agent informed me it would be two volumes, and there wasn’t a chance in hell I could get that published. So then I was obliged to consider “selected” stories, and that meant I did have to leave out any number of stories that I like a lot. It took a long time. I made many lists. Each list was the final one until I thought about it again. Part of the problem is that half of the shorter fiction I’ve written isn’t at all short.
Q. What was your criteria for including certain stories? Were you looking for certain themes?
Occasionally stories were a little frivolous, and I didn’t choose those; I wanted a kind of balance. Really one of the best things I’ve ever done is a story called Bunny Is Good Bread — which has some very graphic abuse of a small boy. When I used to read it in public my daughter would make this little “Oh no, he’s reading that again!” face. It’s not gratuitously nasty, but it is deeply nasty. I did have one story about child abuse I was eager to place in the book [The Juniper Tree], and I thought probably one of those was enough for a single volume of stories. There are two stories about torture, though.
Q. You’ve seen the publishing industry change dramatically over the years. How do these changes affect you?
I’m in my early 70s — I do pretty much what I want to do. I have a comfortable life. What I do now daily at my desk is not going to pay for the tuition of my children in private school — they’re adults, they’re out on their own. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be homeless — though the second I say that, I start to wonder. But there’s a worry level I’ve graduated from. I’m very fortunate. … If I were younger I’d have to deal with the one dreadful fact that has taken place in American publishing, which is that advances have gone way down. … Many a writer’s income just vanished. It’s harder to make a living. People could support themselves by writing a book a year, which is not easy — it’s hard work to write a book a year. I have a good friend in northern California, my age, who just discovered she has to write four books a year to support herself, and she was not living like a princess. It’s gotten stonier and colder and harder.
Q. And yet your daughter Emma Straub [author of “Other People We Married,” “The Vacationers” and the upcoming “Modern Lovers”] went into the family business despite all this!
Emma is a very remarkable human being. It’s a terrible cliché, but she does have her head screwed on right. She’s absolutely determined in her core to do her job as well as she can do it. Making up a kind of life that seems as real as the one you actually have, that’s an odd activity, but Emma, it turns out, is good at it. … When she was right out of college she wrote a long Wuthering Heights-type novel set in high school. She gave me this manuscript about 800 pages long, and I took it with some trepidation. As soon as I started to read it, though, I could relax, because though it might have been kind of a mess, Emma could really write. She had this built-in ability to write very agreeable, well balanced, thoughtful, funny sentences. When you read her prose, you trusted her. This is a real gift.
Q. So is there any truth to the rumors that a third “Talisman” book is forthcoming?
I certainly hope so. It’s totally dependent on the patience of my saintly collaborator, Steve King. We were supposed to start it three or four years ago, but I had medical problems that stopped me in my tracks. Then I had problems with a book I was doing … so we’re no closer to being able to start it. But part of the reason he’s so patient is we have a great idea for the book. I won’t tell you what it is, but there was a famous story that happened in the world when we were young. He kept a scrapbook about it and so did I, him in Maine and me in Milwaukee. It has a lot of juice in it, and he and I both feel that way about it, so we are eager to do this book. I think he’ll cut me a break and let me go a year or two and then we’ll start working on it.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.