Peter Straub is probably my favourite author, but it’s a strange relationship. Some of his books are annual must-reads for me, while there are others I’ve never finished.
I read a lot. I read for a living, and I read for fun. I’m probably a four-book-a-week guy, and I like reading the same books over and over again. I draw comfort from that, and it’s always fun to find new details or new themes that I missed before.
Peter Straub is good for that, particularly his Blue Rose trilogy. More on that in a bit.
My first Straub exposure was probably a lot like yours: The Talisman, his collaboration with Stephen King. I was a pretty big King fan in the early 1980s (not so much anymore), and so when Talisman came out I read it immediately. And it made me think that Peter Straub was probably just like Stephen King; off I went to the used bookstore, where I found Ghost Story, Floating Dragon and Shadowland. And they were terrible. Well, I thought so, at the time. I didn’t know about his earlier, non-scary novels, and still don’t, to be honest with you. But those first books I tried just didn’t interest me.
Over the next few years, I found other fine horror authors, particularly the late Michael McDowell, to enjoy, and never went back to Straub. But he was doing something different in those years, slowly shifting away from horror and into something new. So it would have been around 1990 that I was at the library and spotted a new Straub book called Mystery. I read the flyleaf and thought it sounded interesting; it wasn’t a scarefest but instead an actual mystery novel about a teenager and a murder.
I read it in one sitting.
This ignited my Straub fixation. I went and found his previous novel, Koko, a story of Vietnam, murder and obsession. Something twigged with me about Koko; there were a few strange elements that ran parallel to Mystery, similarities, odd things. A character in Koko wrote a book that’s mentioned in Mystery, for instance, a book about something called the Blue Rose murders.
A couple of years later, out came a book called The Throat … and this is where things got weird. It opens with a character from Koko, the author Tim Underhill, talking about how he wrote Koko and Mystery with Peter Straub, and based them on true events, but changed things around. The Throat is the story of how Underhill goes back to his home town and finally learns what really happened, what the Blue Rose murders were and how he and Straub got it wrong. These books, separate yet tied together, form The Blue Rose trilogy. You can read all or only one, but you should always read The Throat last.
This is absolutely brilliant metafiction. I’ve been reading these books for close to two decades now and I still find new layers to peel back. If you have the patience, these are books you should read.
Straub followed these up with two standalones: The Hellfire Club and Mr. X. The Hellfire Club is another book about a book, a story about murder and secrets and a psychopath named Dick Dart. It’s a wicked thriller and achieves the same surreal level of dreamscaping as the Blue Rose trilogy.
Mr. X is very different, and veers back into the supernatural. It’s my favourite of all Straub’s books. Mr. X is the story of a young man, his strange family, a secretive figure obsessed with Lovecraft, and what may or may not be time travel. I find something new in it every time I read it.
His most recent novels, Lost Boy Lost Girl and In The Night Room, take surreality to a whole new level. He brings back Tim Underhill, who investigates a crime in the first book, then writes the first book in the second book … it’s very hard to explain.
What Straub does with these books is trick you into believing what he’s writing, then turn it around until you have to ask yourself what you just read. He takes the concept of the unreliable narrator to a stratospheric level, weaving layer after layer of story around you until you’re lost in it. He sets his tales in strange, congested places, housing developments, empty houses, old neighbourhoods, full of physical twists and turns and dead ends that mirror his writing. His characters come to life with their first line of his perfect dialogue. It’s literary magic.
In In The Night Room, Straub raises the idea of “the perfect book.” Underhill is confronted with the idea that not all copies of a novel are the same; one is slightly different, with a measure of variance in its content, so that it’s the perfect book for the right reader. This, I suppose, is why some people love a book that others despise. A book has to speak to its reader in a voice that reader wants to hear. For me, the Blue Rose trilogy, Mr. X, The Hellfire Club and, to a lesser degree, Lost Boy Lost Girl and In The Night Room speak my language.
Like I said up top, I’ve still never finished some of his earlier books, Ghost Story in particular, and I probably never will. Unless I find the perfect copy. Or until.