WITH THE PUBLICATION of Ghost Story in 1979, the name of Peter Straub became inextricably identified with contemporary horror fiction. Besides making Straub a fixture of the best-seller lists, Ghost Story and its successors -- Shadowland, Floating Dragon, and the recent collaboration with Stephen King, The Talisman (see above) -- established him as the premier stylist of the modern supernatural novel, a writer of rare wit and intelligence in a field beset with cynical potboilers.
But before there was Peter Straub, brand- name horror writer, there was Peter Straub, poet and mainstream novelist. The story of his transformation is told in Wild Animals, a collection of three early novels, including the never-before-published Under Venus. "If it were not for Under Venus," he writes in the introduction, "I would be a very different man, and if it were not for what happened to it, I think I would have been a far different writer. . . it would have taken me even longer than it did to find my true direction."
Straub's search for that direction began in 1969, when, after three unsatisfying years teaching preparatory school in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he moved to Ireland, intent on a writing career. While studying at the University College in Dublin, he began to place occasional poems with such publications as The New Statesman, and eventually saw two poetry collections in print. He soon set aside a doctoral dissertation on D.H. Lawrence in favor of his first novel, Marriages, which, but for the prophetic appearance of a ghost, was decidedly nonhorrific; a noble experiment in prose poetry, it was published to critical acclaim and popular apathy.
Straub spent the following two years writing Under Venus, a more plot-oriented novel, but he could find no willing publisher. Distraught, he turned to one of his childhood pleasures, the tale of terror, and he has never looked back (except, perhaps, when confronted with the inevitable suggeston that his work has not remained serious or literary -- a suggestion belied by a reading of his ficton rather than his sales statistics). His introduction to Wild Animals frankly admits that its purpose is to get his "lost" novel at last into print by linking it with two of the best horror novels of the 1970s -- Julia and If You Could See Me Now -- which are readily available in paperback, but whose original hardcover editions, published in modest print runs in 1975 and 1977, are indeed a rare breed.
Under Venus recounts the Christmas vacation of expatriate composer Elliot Denmark, who returns with his wife from France to his Wisconsin birthplace and must come to terms with being American: "His own country gave him culture shock." Denmark, who three years before had left a hometown university position to compose full-time, descends inexorably into the very abyss that he had sought to escape overseas: boozy faculty parties, family infighting, local politicking, and above all, a darkly obsessive affair with a faculty widow. The surfaces here are those familiar to the academic novel of adultery and other assaults upon middle-class values, and Under Venus is occasionally marred with the affectations we have come to expect of such books. But it is tense with an unfulfilled Gothic impulse, manifest in nightmares, a sense of past entwining with present, and repetitive imagery of wounded nature intruding upon the imagined civilization of its characters. Therein lies the key to the rejection of this obviously publishable novel early in Straub's career -- it is clearly the work of a novelist in transition from an intensely personal art to an exceedingly popular one.
Julia is a surrender to the Gothic impulse, and Straub's confirmation of supernatural fiction as a viable and venerable form. Laced with Gothic conventions -- a haunted house, doomsaying medium, and mysterious murders 25 years in the past -- its focus, again, is an unquiet love. Julia Lofting, an American living in London, has killed her nine-year-old daughter in a makeshift tracheotomy meant to save the child from choking to death. Recovering from a resultant nervous breakdown, Julia is literally haunted by love for her daughter, a love so strong as apparently to summon the child from the grave. Cool, dispassionate, cunningly ambiguous, Julia is a pure English ghost story -- the stuff of Henry James (who, along with F. Scott Fitzgerald, is the persistent influence in Straub's early novels).
If You Could See Me Now is the centerpiece of the collection, Straub's bending of the supernatural idiom, tested and found worthy in Julia, to his own thematic concerns -- indeed, it is Under Venus recast as a horror novel and told with narrative misdirection reminiscent of Raymond Chandler at his best. Miles Teagarden, a virtual doppelganger for Elliot Denmark of Under Venus, journeys to the rural Wisconsin valley of his childhood to honor a pledge made in 1955 to meet his then-teenaged cousin there 20 years hence. That she died violently on the very night of his vow matters little to Teagarden; he knows, with the neurotic certainty of all infatuated lovers, that she will return. And when a series of young girls who look very much like his cousin are murdered, it appears that he may be right.
"No story exists without its past," Straub writes here, "and the past of a story is what enables us to understand it." Supernatural manifestations notwithstanding, the past is the ghost that haunts the novels of Wild Animals. Each of Straub's protagonists lives under the doubly symbolic spell of Venus; as the narrator of If You Could See Me Now observes: "If I felt that someone or something was watching me, it was only the single bright star in the sky, Venus, sending me light already thousands of years old." Obsessed with the lost love of their past, Straub's characters must come to recognize that love as a fatal succubus -- literally learn to get on with their lives or die.
Wild Animals thus offers a fascinating triptych, a natural progression of stories in which we also witness the maturation of Straub's talents -- his richly textured prose and haunting imagery are exercised with increasing confidence and ambition, setting the stage for his breakthrough novel, Ghost Story. Whether or not one has read its previously published components, Wild Animals is not only splendid entertainment, but also a worthy case history of the making of a modern writer.