Since the publication of “Ghost Story” in 1979, Peter Straub has been one of the dominant figures in contemporary horror fiction. Like his friend and occasional collaborator Stephen King, he has taken on a marginalized subgenre and elevated it, demonstrating, in the process, its largest, darkest possibilities.
There may be no better introduction to Straub’s accomplishments than this new, aptly titled career retrospective, “Interior Darkness.” The collection contains 16 stories, three of them previously uncollected. They range in length from single-page vignettes to densely detailed short novels, in settings from the 20th century Midwest to the Amazon basin, and in subject matter from the traumatic to the transcendent. Likewise, the narrative voices that animate these stories veer from the straightforward prose of the opening novella, “Blue Rose,” to the more surrealistic content of the later entries.
In “The Juniper Tree,” a raw and moving account of sexual abuse and buried memories, the Straub-like narrator describes himself as a writer of “unfashionably long” novels. But these shorter forms have provided Straub with assorted opportunities to experiment freely, to articulate, from a variety of perspectives, a highly personal vision of the world.
Straub’s world is one where trauma — in the form of war, random violence, calculated cruelty and familial dysfunction — dominates the landscape. In the view of a nameless war veteran, the visible world is no more than “a picture over the face of a terrible fire.” It is a world in which angels can appear on the streets of New York, in which love, art, books and music are the only consistent sources of solace. It is, most centrally, a realm filled with enigmatic encounters and terrible, unyielding mysteries.
Several of the stories gathered here connect directly to Straub’s larger works. “Blue Rose” describes certain defining events in the adolescent life of Harry Beevers in “Koko” (1988). Straub’s account of the making of a sociopathic personality is both credible and chilling. In “The Juniper Tree,” the sexual crimes that take place in the Orpheum-Oriental movie theater resurface, to traumatic effect, in “The Throat” (1993). “Mallon the Guru” offers a glimpse into the colorful history of the charismatic wanderer in Straub’s most recent novel, “A Dark Matter” (2010).
The range and variety of Straub’s work never fail to surprise. “A Short Guide to the City,” inspired by an essay on Leningrad/St. Petersburg by poet Joseph Brodsky, is itself an essay-like piece that provides a sociological portrait of a Midwestern city stalked by a serial murderer known as the Viaduct Killer. “Ashputtle,” the tale of a very different killer, takes its source material from the Brothers Grimm story, a dark precursor to the better-known “Cinderella.” In “The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine,” a pair of longtime lovers find themselves on a boat on the Amazon River, heading toward a shocking, unforeseeable destiny. The Halloween-themed “Pork Pie Hat” offers a story within a story that moves from the jazz clubs of New York City to the Depression-era South. Straub’s affectionate, fictionalized portrait of jazz saxophonist Lester Young gives the story much of its emotional strength.
You have never read a story quite like “The Buffalo Hunter.” It introduces us to Bob Bunting, an infantile loner who escapes, in very literal fashion, into the fictional worlds of Luke Short, Raymond Chandler and Leo Tolstoy. In “Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff,” a cuckolded husband hires mysterious figures to punish his wife and her lover, ushering in his own destruction in the process. Loosely inspired by “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and written in a flawless approximation of 19th-century American prose, this tightly compressed novella manages to be both frightening and funny.
Finally — and on a very different note — there is “Little Red’s Tango,” a plotless, impressionistic portrait of a Manhattan-based music collector. Straub’s Little Red is an enigmatic figure whose life is bound up in music and the occasional miracle. For Red, jazz is the one true gateway to the sacred. It is also the source of the knowledge and wisdom that Straub has condensed into a series of secular Beatitudes. Here are just a few:
“Pay attention to musicians.”
“Accept your imperfections, for they can bring you to Paradise.”
“You can never go wrong by thinking of God as Louis Armstrong.”
“Interior Darkness” is a book for those who think they dislike horror, as well as for those who love and respect the genre. Filled with terror, wit and unexpected grace notes, it’s a remarkable achievement that reflects the arc of a lengthy and celebrated career. Louis Armstrong, wherever he may be, would probably agree.
Bill Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
By Peter Straub
Doubleday. 496 pp. $28.95