Straub, Peter 1937–

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Straub, Peter 1937–

(Peter Francis Straub)

PERSONAL: Born March 2, 1943, in Milwaukee, WI; son of Gordon Anthony and Elvena (Nilsestuen) Straub; married Susan Bitker (a counselor), August 22, 1966; children: Benjamin Bitker, Emma Sydney Valli. Education: University of Wisconsin—Madison, B.A., 1965; Columbia University, M.A., 1966; attended University College, Dublin, 1969–72. Hobbies and other interests: Jazz, opera.

ADDRESSES: Home—53 West 85th St., New York, NY 10024.

CAREER: University School, Milwaukee, WI, English teacher, 1966–69; writer, 1969–.

MEMBER: International PEN, Mystery Writers of America, Horror Writers Association.

AWARDS, HONORS: "Best Novel" nomination, World Fantasy Awards, 1981, for Shadowland; British Fantasy Award and August Derleth Award, both 1983, both for Floating Dragon; World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, World Fantasy Convention, 1989, for Koko; World Fantasy Award for Best Novella, World Fantasy Convention, 1993, for The Ghost Village; Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel, Horror Writers Association, 1994, for The Throat, and 2000, for Mister X; Bram Stoker Award for Best Fiction Collection, Horror Writers Association, 2000, for Magic Terror; World Fantasy Award nomination, best anthology category, 2003, for Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists; Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel, 2003, for Lost Boy, Lost Girl, and 2004, for In the Night Room.


Ishmael (poetry), Turret Books (London, England), 1972, Underwood/Miller, 1973.

Open Air (poetry), Irish University Press (Shannon, Ireland), 1972.

Marriages (novel), Coward (New York, NY), 1973.

Julia (novel; also see below), Coward (New York, NY), 1975, published as Full Circle, Corgi (London, England), 1977.

If You Could See Me Now (novel; also see below), Coward (New York, NY), 1977.

Ghost Story (novel), Coward (New York, NY), 1979.

Shadowland (novel), Coward (New York), 1980.

The General's Wife (story), D.M. Grant (West Kingston, RI), 1982.

Floating Dragon (novel), Putnam (New York, NY), 1983.

Leeson Park and Belsize Square: Poems 1970–1975, Underwood/Miller, 1983.

(With Stephen King) The Talisman (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1984, reprinted, Random House (New York, NY), 2001.

Wild Animals: Three Novels (contains Julia, If You Could See Me Now, and Under Venus [also see below]), Putnam (New York, NY), 1984.

Blue Rose (novella), Underwood/Miller, 1985.

Under Venus, Berkley (New York, NY), 1985.

Koko (first novel in the "Blue Rose" trilogy), Dutton (New York, NY), 1988.

Mystery (second novel in the "Blue Rose" trilogy), Dutton (New York, NY), 1990.

Mrs. God, paintings by Rick Berry, Donald Grant (Hampton Falls, NH), 1990.

Houses without Doors (short stories), Dutton (New York, NY), 1990.

The Throat (third novel in the "Blue Rose" trilogy), Dutton (New York, NY), 1993.

The Hellfire Club (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1996.

Mister X, Random House (New York, NY), 1999.

Magic Terror: Seven Tales, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.

(With Stephen King) Black House, Random House (New York, NY), 2001.

Lost Boy, Lost Girl (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 2003.

In the Night Room (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 2004.

(Editor) H.P. Lovecraft: Tales, Library of America (New York, NY), 2005.

Also author of the novella The Ghost Village and editor of anthology Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists, Bard College, 2003. Straub's novels have been translated into a number of foreign languages.

ADAPTATIONS: Julia was adapted for the 1981 Peter Fetterman film, The Haunting of Julia (titled Full Circle in England); Ghost Story was adapted for the 1981 Universal Pictures film of the same title. Floating Dragon was adapted for cassette by Listen for Pleasure Cassettes in 1987; Koko was adapted for cassette by Simon & Schuster Audioworks in 1989.

SIDELIGHTS: One of the most popular practitioners of horror and suspense fiction, American writer Peter Straub is the author of such well-known titles as Ghost Story, Shadowland, Floating Dragon, The Talisman (with Stephen King), and Koko. More than ten million copies of his novels have been sold. Straub employs an array of ghastly elements, including hauntings, vengeful agents of murder, gruesome deaths, and fantastical happenings. He is especially good at, as Maclean's Barbara Matthews noted, "stark cold horror—the kind worshippers of the genre love to spirit away and read quickly, inhaling fright and holding it in their lungs until it becomes brittle enough to shatter if so much as a telephone rings." More than spine-tingling thrillers, however, Straub's novels are also imaginative explorations into the realistic, often personal, roots of the unreal. Patricia L. Skarda observed in Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook that Straub's "best work … focuses on private experiences on the margin where nature and supernature meet, where reality converges with dream, where writing leaves off and the imagination takes over." Straub commented to Joseph Barbato in Publishers Weekly on the effects he wishes to elicit: "I want readers to feel as if they've left the real world behind just a little bit, but are still buoyed up and confident, as if dreaming. I want them left standing in midair with a lot of peculiar visions in their heads."

Straub decided to become a novelist—though not a horror novelist—in the early 1970s, after abandoning an academic career. A former high school English teacher who left the United States for Dublin's University College, Straub was at work on a doctorate when he became disenchanted. "The plan was to get a Ph.D. and come back to get a better job," he told Joseph McLellan in the Washington Post. "Then, in Ireland, I suddenly realized what the trouble really was: I had always thought of myself as a novelist although I had not written a novel. I could feel fiction growing inside me, characters and situations forming themselves in my mind as I walked down the street." Already a published poet, Straub began work in 1972 on his first novel, Marriages, about the extramarital affair of an American businessman in Europe. Published a year later, Marriages received favorable reviews. Ronald Bryden in the Listener called it "the other side of the Jamesian tradition: an American chronicle of the quest for European richness, complexity and depth," while a Times Literary Supplement critic characterized Straub as a "poetic novelist," adding that "it may be this skill which enables him to place so securely the sense of gesture, and the texture of atmosphere, which characterizes Marriages."

Straub was at work on a second novel, Under Venus, when financial pressures prompted a change to his writing efforts. "Marriages had not done very well," he told Barbato, explaining that it was released at "just about the time that publishers were beginning to cut back on midlist—and bottom-list—authors. And I was one of those guys coming along with more of the same. It unnerved me. I knew I could never hold a real job—that I'd be an impossible employee anywhere. I had to save my life by writing a book that could get published." Despite numerous revisions, Under Venus failed to attract a publisher (later it appeared in the three-novel collection Wild Animals). Straub's agent stepped in and suggested he try writing a Gothic. "I found that I had a natural bent toward this kind of thing," he told Barbato. "Later, I had to deal with that, because I had never seen myself as that type of writer. I dealt with it by trying to see just how much I could do with that peculiar stock of imagery and leaden conventions that you're given as a horror novelist."

Straub's horror debut occurred in 1975 with Julia, the harrowing tale of an American woman in England haunted by the tortured ghost of a murdered child—and the emerging knowledge of responsibility in the death of her own daughter (the victim of an emergency tracheotomy). While some reviewers noted inconsistent plotting and characterization, many acknowledged Straub's flair for the gothic. "In the last resort, Julia … succeeds in the brutal business of delivering supernatural thrills," wrote Michael Mason in the Times Literary Supplement; Straub "has thought of a nasty kind of haunting, and he presses it upon the reader to a satisfying point of discomfort." Valentine Cunningham in New Statesman called the book "an extraordinarily gripping and tantalising read…. Every dubious solution and ambivalent pattern is possible, for almost anything becomes believable under the novelist's stunningly gothic manipulations."

After Julia Straub wrote If You Could See Me Now, a tale set in the U.S. Midwest, about the vengeful spirit of a murdered girl who returns to inflict horrors upon the community where she died. Critics particularly praised the novel's narrative timing, structure, and the authenticity of local settings. "Straub is good at slick manipulation of pace," wrote Jonathan Keates in New Statesman, adding that "he has an equally nifty way with rustic grotesques." Keates called the book "crisp, classy buggaboo … full of neatly managed understatements and chillingly calculated surprises." Peter Ackroyd in Spectator singled out the book's "filmic" qualities: "If You Could See Me Now makes great play, for example, with contrasts of speech and silence, of crowd scenes and empty landscapes, and of the ways in which a written 'close-up' can be employed to suggest deep 'emotion.' Some of the book's scenes, in fact, can only be understood in visual terms."

Following these ventures, Straub embarked upon the novel that would become his breakthrough, the bestselling Ghost Story. Drawing upon various horror story motifs and conventions, Ghost Story is the tale of a rural New England community terrorized by a young woman, killed years earlier, who returns to exact retribution from the four elderly townsmen (The Chowder Society) responsible for her death. The Chowder Society's members, who regularly meet to exchange ghost stories, become involved in a frantic race to save themselves and the town from the gruesome revenge of the "shapeshifter" Eva Galli. "What's interesting about Ghost Story is that Mr. Straub … seems to have decided to write a summarizing American tale of the supernatural, and to throw into it every scrap of horror-cliche and campfire trash that he can muster," commented Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times. "Still, because Mr. Straub is so good at writing eerie set-pieces and because the very complexity of his story keeps it baffling to the end, I look back on the time spent reading Ghost Story as on an interval distorted by fever."

Straub's aim in Ghost Story, as Jennifer Dunning quoted the author in the New York Times, was to "take the genre and pull it upstairs a little bit…. Not exactly transcend the genre, but make a little more of the material than has been made of it in the recent past." Ghost Story draws from early masters in the field, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, and Sheridan Le Fanu. Some reviewers objected to the novel's overt deference to these influences. "Although Straub's 'affection' for the proven devices of his betters is estimable, many of these allusions seem rather pedantic and pointless," wrote Jack Sullivan in the Washington Post Book World. Douglas Hill commented in Maclean's that "at times the book stumbles over its structure: all the epigraphs and cute chapter titles are merely pretentious." Straub admitted to Thomas Lask in the New York Times, "There was a certain amount of audacity in the overt references to the great writers, but today the form is debased, and it is a messianic thing to me to elevate it and make it honorable." A number of reviewers were impressed with Straub's creation. Gene Lyons in the New York Times Book Review called Ghost Story "a quite sophisticated literary entertainment," while Valerie Lloyd remarked in Newsweek that "with considerable technical skill, Peter Straub has constructed an extravagant entertainment which, though flawed, achieves in its second half some awesome effects." She concluded: "It is, I think, the best thing of its kind since Shirley Jackson's 'The Haunting of Hill House.'"

Straub moved back to the United States after the success of Ghost Story and embarked upon a period that produced some of his best-known and bestselling titles. However, his next novel, Shadowland, received mixed reviews and, according to Skarda, "confused an audience expecting ghoulish ghosts." The story of two boys who become involved in a world of magic where anything happens, Shadowland's "prophecy and telepathy, use and misuse of sleights of hand and mind convert a strange Arizona prep school and a Vermont home into a platonic inversion where every shadow seems substance." Lehmann-Haupt noted that in Shadowland Straub "appears to be taking the classic elements of the Grimms' fairy tale as far as they can go." Some critics remarked that the fantastical events in the novel appeared too much at random, thereby diminishing the suspense. "Shadowland ultimately has neither the gnomic simplicity of the fairy-tale nor the eerie sense of a grossly interrupted reality, which [Straub] caught more successfully in Ghost Story," commented Thomas Sutcliffe in the Times Literary Supplement.

Straub's bestselling novel Floating Dragon, however, seemed to meet the expectations generated by Ghost Story. In the sweeping story of a malevolent spirit which periodically visits an affluent Connecticut suburb with death and destruction, Straub creates "a compendium of horrors designed to punish the shallow housewives, adulterers, corporate tycoons, and even the children in a commuter community," noted Skarda. "Floating Dragon, beneath its remarkable repertoire of horrific details, is a simple moral tale of the confrontation between good and evil," wrote Alan Bold in the Times Literary Supplement. "Nevertheless, it represents a new level of sophistication in the Gothic novel. Straub plays games with the structure, rapidly switching from third-person to first-person narrative, and teases the reader with biblical symbols and red herrings. The novel is sustained with great skill as the battle between good and evil is impressively, if agonizingly, stretched over the disturbingly supernatural plot." Alan Ryan commented in the Washington Post Book World: "If Floating Dragon is sometimes baffling, flawed in some structural elements, and perhaps a little too long for its own good, it is at the same time both ruthlessly contemporary and steeped in tradition, gruesomely chilling, and told with a narrative strength and a lively colloquial style that readers should welcome."

In his next novel Straub teamed up with friend and fellow horror writer Stephen King—via word processors connected by telephone—to produce the blockbuster The Talisman. Drawing upon both writers' immense popularity, the book was an instant bestseller; critics, however, felt that it was a bit overstocked with mad capers and special effects. The fantasy/adventure story of a boy who goes in search of a magic object to cure his dying mother, The Talisman outlines a power struggle between good and evil in a strange world. "There's a dizzying amount of flipping in this book," maintained Peter Gorner in the Chicago Tribune, "and often the point is elusive." Lehmann-Haupt suggested that The Talisman "suffers from a surfeit of monstrosity. It takes forever to develop its smallest plot complications. It telegraphs its clues with the subtlety of falling telephone poles. It stoops to outrageous sentimentality over its boy hero…. It repeats and repeats unto silliness." These elements, however, are also part of the book's appeal, according to Frank Herbert in the Washington Post Book World: "The Talisman is exactly what it sets out to be—a fine variation on suspense and horror filled with many surprises, a ground King and Straub have plowed before with great success, together and individually. Together, they demonstrate once more that they are the Minnesota Fats of the novel-into-film. When they say six ball in the side pocket, that's where the six ball goes."

Straub's subsequent bestseller, Koko, is a notable departure from his past supernatural novels, and the first in the loosely defined "Blue Rose" trilogy, which also consists of the subsequent novels Mystery and The Throat. A psychological suspense thriller, Koko is the story of four Vietnam War veterans who travel to the Far East to track down a former platoon member they believe has become a deranged killer. Straub remarked to Bestsellers '89 on his change of direction: "By the time I began Koko, I had pretty much done everything I could think to do with supernatural fiction…. Whether I knew it or not, I was saying goodbye to imagery and situations involving hallucination versus reality with which I had been involved for years…. What I wanted to do next was to work with the set of feelings that lay behind horror—to move in closer to the world, to work more strictly within the realistic tradition."

Straub's venture was well received. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called Koko "a dizzying spin through those eerie psychic badlands where nightmare and insanity seem to fuse with reality." Emily Tennyson added in the Detroit Free Press: "Like the war that Straub seeks to analyze and explain, Koko wrenches the spirits of those who took part and were taken apart by Vietnam. Much more than a tale of escape and murder, Koko is an examination of fear in the human soul." While Koko affirmed Straub's ability to create terror, it was also a positive sign of a new scope to his fiction. Lucius Shepard remarked in the Washington Post Book World: "Judged as a thriller, Koko deserves to be compared with the best of the genre, to novels such as Gorky Park and The Honorable Schoolboy…. Koko is vastly entertaining, often brilliantly written, full of finely realized moments and miniatures of characterization…. What all this most hearteningly signals is that Peter Straub is aspiring toward a writerly range which may cause his future novels to face more discriminating judgments yet."

Set in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, Straub's novel Mystery focuses on Tom Pasmore, who survives a near—or perhaps actual—death experience at age ten when he is hit by a car. As Tom recuperates from his trauma, he befriends a neighbor, Lamont von Heilitz, who gradually involves him in investigating two murders—one having occurred many years ago, the other a recent event. "The story has more twists, turns, and blind alleys than most mysteries," commented Clarence Petersen in the Chicago Tribune Books. Also offering praise for the novel, Geoffrey Stokes in Voice Literary Supplement asserted that "it is the story of a secret that is trying to emerge."

The Throat is the concluding novel of Straub's trilogy of psychological horror fiction. Set in the town of Millhaven, the plot centers on the mysterious reemergence of the "Blue Rose" serial murders, which were thought to have been solved long ago. The main character, crime writer and sleuth Tim Underhill, "is forced to explore regions of his psyche and his past that are, to say the least, disturbing," observed Frank Wilson of the New York Times Book Review. Critics have emphasized the novel's defiance of many of the conventions of the genres it draws upon—horror and crime fiction being the most overt. Douglas E. Winter of the Washington Post Book World, for example, deemed the book "a masterpiece of concealment and revelation, the most intelligent novel of suspense to come along in years."

The Hellfire Club introduces Dick Dart, a serial killer who has been preying on women in a small Connecticut town. Much of the plot concerns the events that follow his kidnapping of Nora Chancel, who happens to be the publisher of a notoriously volatile and influential horror novel titled "Night Journey." As the plot of The Hellfire Club progresses, Nora's experience begins to resemble that of the thriller her company published. Critics have emphasized the meta-fictional, multilayered qualities of The Hellfire Club, admiring its complexity. "What remains impressive … is the way Mr. Straub has worked the fantastic elements of his story into a largely realistic plot, thereby allowing him to avoid a literal descent into the hellfire of his title," asserted Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times. "This technique is promising, and one hopes he will exploit it even more successfully in future works."

In addition to his numerous novels, Straub has also written shorter narrative pieces. His short fiction appears in the collections Houses without Doors, which contains two novellas and five short stories, and Magic Terror: Seven Tales, which won a Bram Stoker Award. Houses without Doors received warm reviews, with critics praising in particular "Blue Rose," the story of a sadistic young man who murders his younger brother, and "The Juniper Tree," about a boy who experiences child abuse inside a movie theater. Magic Terror provides stories that reveal psychopathic sadists, serial killers, and—of course—ghosts. "Horror stories do not come any juicier than these arsenic-laced literary cordials," concluded Ray Olson in Booklist.

The Gothic novel Mister X pays tribute to H.P. Love-craft with a story of terror based on familial ties. On a trip home to Edgerton, Illinois, to visit his mother's deathbed, Ned Dunstan learns of deep family secrets and of the very real danger that his father, known only as Mr. X, will murder him. Ned must discover his father's whereabouts, a task made more difficult by the killer's supernatural ability to elude pursuit. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called Mister X. "an ingenious whodunit with an intoxicating shot of the supernatural … one of the most invigorating horror reads of the year." In Entertainment Weekly, Straub admitted that the novel reflects a return to the horror/fantasy genre. "I felt free to indulge in the supernatural … into a territory where more or less anything goes," he said.

In 2001 Straub and Stephen King collaborated on a second novel featuring Jack Sawyer, titled Black House. Where Sawyer was a child in The Talisman, he is now an adult, a retired cop called to Wisconsin to help find a vicious serial killer of children. Sawyer's uncomfortable memories of a supernatural realm called The Territories leads him to a mysterious black house in the woods that turns out to be a portal to the other world. The story includes "dark wit, sly literary references, suspense and heartache," to quote Mary Elizabeth Williams in the New York Times Book Review. Several reviewers applauded the ability shown by Straub and King to keep their collaboration seamless. "Writing fiction is generally a solo exercise, and collaborations often smack of gimmickry," observed Bruce Fretts in Entertainment Weekly. "Yet this partnership brings out both authors' strengths—King's down-and-dirty storytelling and Straub's more sweeping literary style." Washington Post Book World contributor Neil Gaiman likewise concluded: "Black House allows us to see two master-craftsmen, each at the top of his game, collaborating with every evidence of enormous enjoyment on a summery heartland gothic. The book is hugely pleasurable, and repays a reader in search of horror, adventure or of any of the other joys, both light and dark, one can get from the best work of either of these two scribbling fellows."



Bestsellers '89, issue 1, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 28, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984.

St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1998.


Book, September, 2001, Stephanie Foote, review of Black House, p. 80.

Booklist, April 15, 2000, Ray Olson, review of Magic Terror, p. 1499.

Chicago Tribune, May 16, 1979; December 16, 1981; November 8, 1984.

Detroit Free Press, November 13, 1988.

Entertainment Weekly, February 9, 1996, p. 46; August 20, 1999, Clarissa Cruz, "The Other Fright Knight," p. 120; September 21, 2001, Bruce Fretts, "Back in 'Black': Stephen King and Peter Straub Return to the Shadows with the Delightfully Creepy Black House," p. 76.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 1990, p. 1126.

Library Journal, November 15, 1995, p. 101; July, 1999, Alicia Graybill, review of Mister X, p. 137; April 1, 2000, Alicia Graybill, review of Magic Terror: Seven Tales, p. 134; January 1, 2001, Michael Rogers, review of Under Venus, p. 164.

Listener, March 15, 1973.

Locus, September, 1991, p. 23.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 30, 1983; March 20, 1983; September 18, 1988; November 18, 1990.

Maclean's, May 21, 1979; January 12, 1981; March 14, 1983.

New Statesman, February 27, 1976; June 24, 1977.

Newsweek, March 26, 1979; December 24, 1984.

New York Times, April 3, 1979; April 27, 1979; May 20, 1979; October 24, 1980; December 16, 1981; January 26, 1983; November 8, 1984; February 1, 1996, p. B4; August 7, 2000, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "The Monster under the Bed (or Teaching the Class)."

New York Times Book Review, April 8, 1979; March 6, 1983; March 24, 1985; October 9, 1988; June 27, 1993, p. 24; February 25, 1996, p. 9; August 6, 2000, Bill Kent, review of Magic Terror, p. 17; November 4, 2001, Mary Elizabeth Williams, review of Black House, p. 32.

People, January 28, 1985.

Publishers Weekly, January 28, 1983; May 11, 1984; August 12, 1988; April 10, 1995, p. 17; November 27, 1995, p. 49; July 12, 1999, review of Mister X, p. 77; November 1, 1999, review of Mister X, p. 49; November 22, 1999, John F. Baker, "King & Straub Back Together," p. 14; September 4, 2000, review of Magic Terror, p. 42; September 24, 2001, Daisy Maryles, "And So Do King/Straub," p. 20; October 8, 2001, Scott Nybakken, review of Black House, p. 59.

Spectator, July 9, 1977.

Times Literary Supplement, March 23, 1973; February 27, 1976; April 17, 1981; March 11, 1983.

Tribune Books (Chicago), October 2, 1988; January 20, 1991, p. 12; February 18, 1996, p. 6.

Voice Literary Supplement, May, 1993, p. 25.

Washington Post, October 31, 1980; February 6, 1981; February 16, 1981; November 27, 1984.

Washington Post Book World, April 8, 1979; October 14, 1984; August 21, 1988; April 28, 1991; May 16, 1993, p. 5.


Post Review of Black House, September 30, 2001), Neil Gaiman, review of Black House.

Peter Straub Web site, (September 30, 2001).

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Straub, Peter 1937–

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