Peter Straub is an American novelist who wrote such enduring classics as Ghost Story (1979), Shadowland (1980), and Floating Dragon (1982). These three works set a firm foundation for Straub, becoming bestselling novels and setting the stage for his 1984 collaboration with Stephen King, The Talisman. He was among the horror triumvirate of King, Koontz, and Straub in the 1980s — three names invoked whenever a new or upcoming author should be “added to their ranks.” It had a nice ring to it, like the well-chosen order of names for a law firm.
As a teenager, I enjoyed Straub’s work, but never fully appreciated its beauty and complexity until I re-read Ghost Story about 15 years ago. It opened up to me like a whole new novel, leaving me stunned at the immensity of accomplishment that I held in my hands. It also left me confident that much of what unfolds in that book went well over my teenage head, like a home run I had no chance of catching.
In 2015, I was doing research to write an article for Cemetery Dance called “The Birth of Modern Horror Fiction: Fear and the Occult in the 1970s.” (It was published in Cemetery Dance #73 in 2016, which is still available.) I reached out to three authors whom I felt would have great insight for the article, and I aimed high. I was happy and relieved beyond measure when I received a gracious and kind response from Peter Straub. Looking back on my correspondence with him, I found an update I sent him as the project progressed through later stages; he was supportive and encouraging. I can’t speak highly enough of Mr. Straub and the generous gift of his time and kind words. He is a true gentleman.
I used snippets from the interviews in my article, including two others with Robert Weinberg and Ramsey Campbell, so this interview has never appeared in its entirety. I figured it’s been so long since I posted an article on Realms of Night, my handful of dedicated subscribers deserve a treat. Keep in mind while you are reading that I sent him a list of written questions, and he sent back written answers. I dearly wish this had been a conversation so we could have gone where it wanted to go overall; alas, my follow-up questions are not so much follow-ups to his answers as they are follow-ups to my previous questions. In any event, without further ado, posted below is my full interview with Peter Straub from January 2015. Enjoy.
Full Interview for “The Birth of Modern Horror Fiction: Fear and the Occult in the 1970s”
Q: It seems to be generally agreed that the rise of modern horror fiction started with Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and caught some serious lift with the publication of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and Thomas Tryon’s The Other. These were quickly followed by bestsellers like Marasco’s Burnt Offerings, Benchley’s Jaws, and The Sentinel by Jeffrey Konvitz, to name just a few. So many books in the years directly after 1971 carried the tagline “First THE EXORCIST, then THE OTHER, now …<insert book title here>”
Would you agree that these books served as sort of gateway drugs for the masses, opening the way for the enduring popularity of Stephen King and everything that happened with horror publishing in the 1980s and early-90s?
Peter Straub: THE OTHER, ROSEMARY’S BABY, and THE EXORCIST were the novels that indicated the contemporary possibilities of horror fiction to me, but other books and writers were important to many people of about my same age. By 1973, the year I turned thirty, I knew of Levin, Tryon, and Blatty, but apart from the memory of having read some Lovecraft and M.R. James in very early adolescence, not much else. After Thomas Tessier and I began continuing in London the conversations we had begun in Dublin in 1969, I was reintroduced to Lovecraft and James and introduced, really for the first time, to Richard Matheson, Frederick P. Nolan, Robert Bloch, Charles Beaumont, Fritz Leiber, Shirley Jackson, and some others–really, it was Tessier who brought these writers to my attention, but they were already completely familiar to Stephen King, Charles Grant, Les Daniels, Chelsea Quinn Yarborough, Karl Edward Wagner, Kim Newman, Dennis Etichison, and almost all of the horror writers who came along around the time I did or shortly after that. It is this group of writers, including Marasco, Konvitz, T.M. Wright, and Ken Eulo, who made up the first response to Blatty, Levin, Tryon and were the first representatives of the horror boom, which did not really get its legs under it until 1977-1980. Also, no one should underestimate the impact of De Palma’s film of CARRIE, from 1976. I’d say that film really jump-started King’s career, to the general benefit of all the writers named above, including me.
Q: The majority of popular horror in the 1970s tracked themes of connecting with mystical beings, and generally tapping into, or experiencing, something supernatural. This came on the heels of a resurging interest in the occult — an occult revival documented in many of the popular periodicals of the time. The Church of Satan was founded in 1966. Interest in witchcraft, spiritualism, healers, divination, and psychic sciences were on the rise throughout the late 1960s. The counter-culture movement seemed focused on the rejection of established American social norms, including “old fashioned” views of religion in the coming Age of Aquarius. The rise of mysticism was embraced and knowledge of the occult was fashionable. Was this revival due largely to the hippie movement, or was there more to it?
Peter Straub: Probably the general culture and its great, unforeseen upheavals during the 60s made it easier for readers to accept supernatural themes and mechanisms, open as it was to magical, fundamentally irrational thought-systems such as astrology and palmistry. But I think some of the horror fiction that came along in the late 70s was so powerful that it must have at least reinforced the culture’s more exploratory impulses. Of course the 70s were very different from the 60s: in some ways, they were the grave of the 60s, and it is very tempting to think that a lot of horror writing crawled out of that very grave, the grave of easy assumptions and easy optimism, of ideals gone sour, even rotten.
Q: Following that line of thought, I tend to think that the horror fiction of the early 1970s tapped into those interests and turned the key on prevalent thoughts that such powers could be beneficial. Those books opened the door of possibility that something evil lurked in those mystical realms. Do you agree with this line of thought, or do you have other ideas about why those novels became so popular at the time?
Peter Straub: The Manson family extravaganza and the brutal murders at Altamont were the broadest strokes of a phenomenon widely visible during the 70s, that very little remained of actual hippie idealism. A kind of underclass had adopted the clothing and mannerisms of forward-leaning, good-hearted 60s young people, and for a long time criminality, at least a kind of criminality, was almost fashionable. Drug use deepened and darkened. I think it was clear to many, many people that something murky and violent had been released in our psyche, and I think horror fiction offered a symbolic, narrativized version of that process and its result.
Probably, I should admit that I never liked hippies in the first place. They did not really think very well, and they tended to babble about generalities. Also, hippies didn’t like the books or the music I loved, and in those days, differences of taste like that really set people apart. So… much as I dislike admitting this, I was (and remain) not at all slow to read the violent sloppy bloody stuff like the Mansons, the Weather Underground, and local revolutionary cells of the sort that kidnapped Patty Hearst back into the more easy-going, harmless, charming but dopey stuff that preceded it all.
Q: Your own novel Ghost Story, published in 1979, is considered a modern classic, but your first novels were ventures into the literary mainstream. What made you decide to change course and veer into supernatural territory with your work?
Peter Straub: I wrote two mainstream or literary novels at the end of the sixties and at the beginning of the seventies. The first did so poorly that the second could not be accepted by my publishers–I didn’t understand that present sales directly affected subsequent acceptability. My wife was supporting us. In 1973, I turned thirty, and bohemian poverty had lost very nearly all of its appeal. Looking for a job, then taking a job, and after that going to the workplace and performing my job seemed even more dismal than bohemian poverty. It was clear to me that I could be happy only if I could raise a little money by writing books, different books. Levin and Tryon proved to me that horror novels could be good fiction, so I wrote two sub-Jamesian novels, JULIA and IF YOU COULD SEE ME NOW. “The Turn of the Screw” was and probably still is my primary case for the possibility of horror fiction also being literature. These books turned the tide, rescued my life, established the basis for everything that came later.
Q: The 1970s also turned a corner in TV and cinematic adaptations of horror novels and ghost stories. An early Steven Spielberg effort, 1971’s Duel was an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s short story. William Friedkin’s version of The Exorcist was one of the most profitable films of its time. As an elementary school-kid at the time, mere mention of The Amityville Horror caused me to shudder with fear, only because of what I’d heard from older kids who claimed to have seen it. The Omen was loaded with star power. Shockers such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Last House on the Left, and Halloween emerged from independent film channels as Italian filmmakers such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento were seeing their influence manifest in the American film markets. The Wicker Man came out of the UK, and Alien hit the big screen. Other than the obvious adaptations, how much do you feel the horror film and horror fiction movements were connected in the 1970s? Did these two mediums appeal to the same audience? Does this same connection (or lack of connection) exist today?
Peter Straub: I think there was a brief connection that was at its best early on. The films of Carrie, The Exorcist, and Burnt Offerings established the connection. Duel (which no one saw, actually), Amityville Horror and maybe a few others sustained it for a while, but it did not take long for the two audiences to separate themselves out. Studios realized that the small but real success of movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween and the Jason/Freddie movies meant that a lot of teenagers, mostly boys, wanted blood, sex scenes in which no actual sex occurred, crudity and excess. Bang, there you are, a genre was born. After that, I was pretty sure that none of my books would ever again be filmed. For a long time, Jacob’s Ladder was the only horror-ish movie I really liked.
Q: It seems that the widespread popularity of horror fiction came to an end in the mid-1990s. Do you agree? If so, what do you think contributed to its end?
Peter Straub: The so-called “boom” in horror fiction did really fade out in the nineties. It was like flagpole-sitting or goldfish-swallowing, it had a brief craze. Publishers oversold it, and a lot of crappy horror novels hit the paperback racks, and I think the reading public had trouble rooting the good stuff from under the thick layer of fertilizer. Besides that, I think people had just moved. The good writers among us held onto at least most of their audience, the not so good ones wondered what the hell had happened.
Q: Do you think a similar rise in the popularity of horror fiction as it happened in the 1970s is possible in the future? If so, what might be some of the harbingers or prerequisites of such a popular resurgence (societal stage setting, moral or military conflict, etc.)?
Peter Straub: Sorry, but I am totally incapable of answering this question. The future is a dark question mark.
Q: Feel free to add any of your own thoughts in relation to the theme, “The Birth of Modern Horror Fiction: Fear and the Occult in the 1970s.”
Peter Straub: What is difficult to imagine in these days is how wide-open and barely-formed horror writing seemed to be, at least to me, in the mid-seventies. It appeared to be sort of unpopulated, like a very large city in which the streets were remarkably empty and most of the buildings uninhabited. This gave me a tremendous sense of freedom. As I think I’ve made clear, this freedom was in large part a consequence of tremendous ignorance, but I think the ignorance was helpful.
Tessier and I talked about all those L.A. writers I listed earlier, Matheson, Bloch, Beaumont, et al, but they seemed kind of self-consciously minor to me, deliberately minor, working mainly in short stories that mostly seemed like variations on the Twilight Zone model. They did not seem to be in the way. I mean, they were not competition.
Thom and I had the same agent after a while, Carol Smith, and because of us, I think, Ramsey Campbell hired her. That was how I met Ramsey–in Carol Smith’s office, with Thom. He seemed to have earned so much respect from Carol and Thom that I imagined him to be the author of maybe half a dozen books. I didn’t know that the book I picked up that day, DEMONS BY DAYLIGHT, was his first book from a trade publisher. The stories were those of a proven master, I thought.
Of course Ramsey knew far more than I did about the history and nature of the genre we found ourselves in. However, it’s also true that his ambitions seemed to be rather different from mine, his more focused than mine, mine wider than his. I guess I wanted to re-invent the Gothic novel, to write books sort of inspired by Wilkie Collins and BLEAK HOUSE, with a measure of Ross Macdonald thrown in.
— January 20, 2015
Per my usual modus operandi, I have included scans from my library of the Peter Straub books I still own. I had several more at one point, but a move required some downsizing, so these are the ones I have on hand.
For a list of Peter Straub novels currently available on Amazon, click here.
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