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The Return of Peter Straub

March 1, 2010

Has it really been six years? Six years since a new Peter Straub novel hit bookshelves? Let me check that — yup. Of course, I should have known, considering I heard it from the author himself.

Not personally. I should be so lucky. Straub was the special guest on the latest episode of Horror Etc., the second-best Canadian podcast in the world, as part of a show focusing on horror novels. If you’re not a Horror Etc. listener, I urge you to give the show a try; hosts Ted, Tony and Doug dig right into the horror/thriller genre, but also indulge the “etc.” part of things from time to time. It’s a great program.

Anyway, Straub was on, chatting with Tony about his new book, A Dark Matter. The arrival of this book has made me very happy. Straub isn’t just my favourite horror author — he’s my favourite author, period. As he details in the interview, even when he deviated from horror, he still dealt in fear, and that’s what makes his books resonate for me. In the interview, he hints at his own demons, his issues with fear and what I think might be anxiety. I can relate to that, and it helps me understand why his books resonate with me.

I tend to divide Straub’s canon into four distinct periods. The first is his mainstream novels of the 1970s, books like Marriages and Under Venus. I read them, and didn’t care for them. They weren’t bad books — they just weren’t for me.

Straub then rocketed into horror in the late 1970s, with perfect, delicious terror tales like If You Could See Me Now and his best-known work. Ghost Story. He famously collaborated with Stephen King for The Talisman, a book the writers revisited with Black House in 2001.

And then there was a decided shift into crime fiction, with his famed Blue Rose Trilogy (which I have mentioned before), Mr. X and The Hellfire Club. I don’t hesitate to say Mr. X is my favourite Straub book — although it was a hard decision to choose just one — and I love its perfect blend of what makes Straub’s books work for me. A labyrinthine plot, vivid characters, old mysteries, a hint of the supernatural and the single best last sentence ever printed in a mainstream novel all combine for a wonderfully twisted adventure.

The final stage of Straub’s career are his last two books. Lost Boy Lost Girl and In The Night Room are interesting, if rushed, attempts at creating a detective-fiction character out of Tim Underhill, who might be the protagonist of the Blue Rose trilogy, but might not. These two books are shorter, tighter and simpler than Straub’s 1980s-90s output, and seem more geared towards casual readers. Lost Boy Lost Girl has particular resonance for me.

So where does A Dark Matter fit into this? On the podcast, Straub says he wrote close to 1,000 pages before the book was pared down to about 400. Pity. I like it when he runs long. But I haven’t started reading it yet, so I’ll reserve judgment. On the surface, it looks like all the blurbs calling this “a return to form” might be right. I’m hopeful. I like Straub best when he’s exploring fear, and this book seems to be laced with dread.

In the meantime, I’m kicking myself. I really am. Horror Etc. put out the call for recorded book reviews for this episodes, but I’m so behind on my podcast listening — when Lost is on, Lost podcasts take over — that I missed the deadline. I would have loved to have been a part of this episode, particularly since the boys held a draw for a copy of A Dark Matter. Anyway, I probably would have talked about my second-favourite horror writer: Michael McDowell. You should read his books right after you’re done with Straub.

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