Peter Straub is one of the top horror fiction writers, living or dead, who can be found in any bookstore, brick-and-mortar or digital. That’s what his author bio should say. Instead, it offers just a glimpse, saying:
Peter Straub is the author of seventeen novels. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel for Koko.
No matter. Peter Straub has written some fantastic yarns that always manage to be atmospheric, tense, and magical. I first came across Peter’s work in the form of his novel, Shadowland, a book about two boys who discover another world and all the fantastic and frightening things therein while summering with one of the boys’ eccentric uncle. That’s a nutshell description (and if you haven’t read Shadowland, then I would urge you to find a copy). Anyway, since that nearly hypnotic novel I haven’t looked back, snapping up Peter’s novels at every opportunity.
Today marks a new opportunity.
Peter Straub has published his latest novel, A Dark Matter, and it’s every bit the fantastic story I’ve come to expect and enjoy from his pen (or keyboard, as it were). So when I heard that he’d be agreeable to answering a few questions for Suvudu, I jumped, almost literally, at the opportunity. Below Peter answers nine questions posed to him by yours truly. It would have been ten, but I lost my train of thought in one and, embarrassingly, included it in my questions. Peter was kind enough not to hold it against me–bless him.
So I submit to you our interview with Peter Straub, author of the newly-released A Dark Matter:
Question: Your latest book, A Dark Matter, feels like a novel of the sixties as seen through a lens of magical realism. How much of this novel was informed or based off of real events?
Peter Straub: I used my memories of draft protests and anti-Vietnam demonstrations in mid-sixties Madison, but that is about all that came from real life. Apart of course from the atmosphere, which was really thick, filled with anger, fear and suspicion.
Q: Spenser Mallon, the charismatic guru who acts as a kind of catalyst for the events in this book, is the leader of a tight-knit group of followers who also seem to have dedicated themselves to his vision and ceremonies leading up to the event in the meadow. He has the feeling of being drawn, at least in part, from another charismatic real-life persona. Was this an inspiration for the character?
Peter Straub: If you are talking about Charles Manson, he was never an inspiration for Mallon. I based the character on two sage/guru-types who drifted into Madison during the mid-sixties, babbling about violence, the I Ching, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and societal violence. These handsome and slightly older fellows appropriated whatever they got their hands on, including girlfriends. I understood them to be frauds from the start, but they were pretty interesting, anyhow.
Q: Our main protagonist in A Dark Matter, Lee Harwell, is trying to piece together the events of that gruesome night and understand its effect on his wife and friends who took part in that doomed ritual, but have shut him out from that part of their lives. The resulting story can be deceptively complex. As you were writing this novel, did the story present itself to you in this fashion, or did you spice things up a bit after the first draft?
Peter Straub: This is the way I think, alas. The story emerged in the way you describe, and my only effort at spicing things up was to rewrite the first 150 pages in the first person, summarizing a lot of the story as I went along.
Q: You’ve also released an earlier version of this novel titled The Skylark (Subterranean Press, 2009) that you call “a much looser, sloppier, more wild-eyed version of the book, with blind alleys, red herrings, and false trails.” Would you recommend reading them both? What lead to your decision to release the story in two different editorial states?
Peter Straub: The Skylark is primarily intended for the dedicated reader who collects first editions and is interested in my process. It represents the very different novel this book was when first submitted, the novel I fondly thought was finished. Because of the hundreds of pages of lost material, I thought that it should be available to those who most wanted to see it. A Dark Matter is a better book, more elegant, more efficient, and a testimony to the editing process, but its wild and wooly original version has a lot of energy and wildness, and a total willingness to gamble, going for it.
Q: The horror market is said to be in a pretty tough time at the moment. What are your thoughts on this?
Peter Straub: I think every part of the book business is going through a tough time, and no one is in a real position to know where we are going.
Q: When I describe your novels to friends, I tell them that you bring your books to a slow boil and that the reader doesn’t know how intense the experience is until it’s too late (and then, of course, you can’t put the book down).
Peter Straub: It’s not a question, but it is lovely anyhow, and I thank you.
Q: I’ll go ahead and out myself as a fan of yours. I first came across your work through The Talisman and Black House, novels you co-authored with some guy named Stephen King. Then Shadowland, then Ghost Story, Koko, and so on. Anyway, I’ve come to think that a big part of why your novels are so difficult to put down is due to how emotionally invested I become in your characters’ lives. When you write and edit these novels, is there a reality-litmus test to which you subject your characters?
Peter Straub: I wish there was some kind of litmus test I could use to see if characters were fully developed or still only half-cooked. It is certainly my desire to make them be as real and complex as they can be, as human and various, even variable. Otherwise nothing counts quite as much.
Q: You’ve really jumped feet-first into new media. Lately you’re slated to appear on a Reddit.com interview (at the time of this writing), you have fan pages on Facebook, and multiple blog interviews (like this one). Does this added ability to reach out to your readers create new and exciting opportunities, or can it be too great a distraction? Or both?
Peter Straub: I was a sucker for Facebook and Twitter from the beginning. They struck me as so much FUN, so much sheer pleasure, so many opportunities to get inventive and play around. Or mess around. Using these kinds of things, these situations, for promotion seems like a logical next step, and doing so serves sort of to take the place of book tours and network TV interviews, the things that used to happen when you published a book. I like the blogs and the bloggers, they have created a lively and enjoyable world. Now and then someone slams me, and it’s usually because he or she objects to my method, which seems valid to me. Everybody can’t like the way I do things. The people who loved Mickey Spillane probably never cared much for Ross Macdonald.
Q: Later this year Del Rey is planning on releasing the hardcover graphic novel of The Talisman. Have you read the Talisman comics? If so, what are your thoughts about their translation from book to comic book?
Peter Straub: I read the issues as they pass through the process, and I’m glad I didn’t have to write them. So much must be compressed, passed over, or implied. So far, they’re doing a fine job.
Q: Finally, you’ve seen A Dark Matter though publication now. So what’s next for Peter Straub? What do you do once the book is out in the wild–new projects or kick back and recharge for a bit?
Peter Straub: Ah. Yes. What the devil do I do when a book is at last out in the world? Try to help it over the hurdles, I guess. I do have another book in mind, and it looks good to me, but right now, it is much too dispersed and undeveloped to talk about. It isn’t even ready for an Ultrasound.