“Fiction Lets Me Get the Facts Right” (Peter Straub)


Last week the fabulous storyteller Peter Straub passed away at 79. (The New York Times obit is by Clay Risen.)

Straub wrote genre fiction, notably horror and crime, but his work strained at the leash. His two great contemporaries were Stephen King and Anne Rice. Both King and Rice can be summed up reasonably quickly, whereas Straub’s conception requires a bit more time to explain.

Straub had another kind of ambition, a desire to create a vast and subtle canvas, a willingness to let the story defy convention. In The NY Times obit, Straub’s occasional collaborator Stephen King says, “He was a better and more literary writer than I was.” This is perhaps true, but while Straub was a bestseller during the horror boom of the ’70s and ’80s, his sophistication did not always work in his favor. The less highfalutin approach of King or Rice could paradoxically exhibit greater craft, for a significant part of delivering the goods is simply giving the punters what they want. 

I haven’t read so much horror, but I do know crime fiction. As with his horror novels, Straub’s contribution sold well — especially the energetic and highly readable Blue Rose trilogy of Koko, Mystery, and The Throat — but most of Straub’s crime tales are simply too epic, diffuse, and self-aware to land the requisite body blows with memorable precision. The unashamedly lurid Koko is the best of the trilogy, but the other two start to devolve into something like a family saga from Herman Wouk or James Michener, albeit with a gothic atmosphere.

That gothic atmosphere was more suited to horror than crime. All the obits touch on Ghost Story from 1979, which remains a beloved benchmark of the horror genre. Of the Straub I’ve read, Ghost Story is the most straightforward. The novel is utterly compelling. It is easy to bracket the book with various works of Stephen King, although Straub’s prose is more poetic than that of King. However, in this case, that poetry doesn’t impede the mounting terror. 

When I met Straub in person, I told him a true tale: “I read Ghost Story on a flight from JFK to Heathrow. When the plane began its descent, I was upset because I wanted to keep reading to the finish rather than disembark. Probably I was the only person on that transatlantic flight who would have relished another hour’s time in the air!”

I didn’t know Straub well, he was simply in the audience a few times, and we exchanged a handful of emails. Jazz was a passion, especially Paul Desmond, there are Desmond references everywhere in Straub’s books. When I emailed him asking for his favorite Desmond records, he replied:

Unfortunately, the best Desmond happens on Brubeck records. I’d list Jazz at Oberlin, Jazz Goes to College, Jazz Goes to Junior College (!), and for a really ruminative, essayistic Desmond, Dave Digs Disney. Apart from the standard quartet recordings, there’s a great one with Jim Hall — the one with “I Get a Kick Out of You.”

Lester Young was another love. A Straub novella, Pork Pie Hat, creates an alternate reality where Young’s precipitous decline in the late ‘50s is explained through long-ago events concerning horror and murder. I admit the act of making a gothic fable out of a real life jazz tragedy is not really to my taste, but naturally the novella is smooth and entertaining. Straub told me that the story was inspired by the television chorus Young takes on “Fine and Mellow” with Billie Holiday.

As far as I know, Straub did not write any jazz criticism, but he supplied liner notes to several albums by Scott Hamilton, Mike LeDonne, Phil Woods, Warren Vache, Junior Mance, and others. The notes for Tommy Flanagan’s The Sunset and the Mockingbird include an unforgettable paragraph, one of the best I’ve ever read concerning the art of jazz piano:

Over the past twenty years, Tommy Flanagan has progressed from strength to strength while far too much of what has been written about him misrepresents the real nature of his talent. Adjectives like “elegant,” “civilized,” “poetic,” “modest,” and “discreet” recur so often as to suggest that the charming Mr. Flanagan offers harmless salon vapors based upon the poems of Mr. Mallarmé. Any such notion is, let us say, laughable. In fact, Tommy Flanagan is a passionate, tremendously muscular piano player who leans into every phrase with enough force to blow an unsuspecting sideman off the bandstand. The clarity of his articulation and the resolute unflappability of his progression from one inspiration to the next can be called elegant and is nothing if not civilized the best, widest possible sense, but most of the time this music is about as delicate as Muhammad Ali’s left hand. 

In 2019 an email from Straub arrived out the blue. He had belatedly looked at my post The Crimes of the Century. It is a bit egotistical to reproduce his comments here, but his own judgements are thoughtful and intriguing.

The new DTM took me via a link to your list of crime novels, and wow, I was delighted to see The Hellfire Club on that list. You say such good things about it, too. Thank you. I didn’t really think I’d see anything of mine there, and was really happy to come upon my name. I gotta say, leaving me and my books out of this, that you sure do have great taste. I agree with almost everything you say, except that I can’t read Dame Agatha any more because it all seems like an animated crossword puzzle, and I love The Long Goodbye above all other Chandler novels, although The Lady in the Lake is right up there, too — I even like the crazy Robert Montgomery movie, which I saw as a kid and flipped over. Ruth Rendell speaks to a bit more to me than she does to you, I believe. And McCarry a lot less — his politics horrify me. It’s like he sees everything backward. Anyhow, it was so much fun to read your lovely long list.


This past week I’ve revisited a linked pair of Straub novels, lost boy, lost girl and In the Night Room. They appeared in 2004 and 2005, long after the horror boom. This was right when I was first investigating Straub, and at the time I was so pleased with these new books. It seemed as if Straub had made a breakthrough, where horror, crime, and the very work of being an author were aligned in proper accord.  Upon re-reading, these books were even better than I remembered. (The stories are linked but they needn’t both be read, nor do they have to be read in order. If you only read one, read In the Night Room.)

The (fictional) town of Millhaven and protagonist Timothy Underhill repeatedly recur in the Straub oeuvre. Millhaven is a typical Midwestern city (Straub was from Wisconsin) and Underhill is a writer of horror and mystery fiction. 

Underhill has gone through transformations over the years — the Straub universe would need a few retcons if it became a franchise — but by the time of lost boy, lost girl and In the Night Room, the reader understands that Underhill and Straub are essentially the same person. On many pages, Straub is writing his daily life, putting himself straight into the frame as Underhill. 

In other words, the books are examples of meta. lost boy, lost girl has the obvious kind of meta, where an author writes about an author. In the Night Room is a committed dive off the deep end. 

Both are comparatively short and sweet. The volumes of the Blue Rose trilogy and the earlier horror classics are massive doorstops; their size is perhaps part of a bid to create the Great American Novel in genre form. Straub slims down for lost boy, lost girl and In the Night Room, and that’s all to the good. Both books are also a frank blend of straight crime and ghost story. By this point, with over a dozen bestsellers under his belt, Straub could pull his weight in either genre, and it seems to be with a sigh of relief that he follows his muse wherever it wants to go.  

The introduction of the ghost antagonist in lost boy, lost girl is flawless. Straub said that the image of the ghost was directly inspired by René Magritte’s 1937 painting Not to Be Reproduced.

Mark came around the corner, looked for an introductory moment up at the whole of Michigan Street, and felt the breath in his lungs turn to vapor. Even before he had taken in any details, his nerve endings had registered a sense of essential wrongness. For perhaps as long as five or six seconds, familiar Michigan Street struck him as enemy territory. Only then did he notice the profound stillness. Drained of life and dimension, Michigan Street was as flat and dead as a landscape on a billboard. Skip lay curled on his porch as if dead. Mark’s knees weakened and trembled, and his heart stuttered in his chest.

With an enigmatic, self-conscious authority that suggested he had been there all along, a thick-bodied man facing the other direction stood silhouetted against the dead sky at the top of Michigan Street. He was there now, in any case, and perhaps he had been posed up there from the start, and in his shock, Mark had failed to see him. The sense of wrongness flowed from this man, Mark understood — this figure with his back turned. Mark took in the unkempt black hair curling past his collar, his wide back covered by a black coat that fell like a sheet of iron to the backs of his knees. Willful, powerful wrongness came off of him like steam.

No, Mark thought, this creature had not been standing at the top of the street all along. He had set the scene, then placed himself in it. He had created an effect, and the purpose of the effect was to get Mark’s attention. With the clarity that sometimes follows in the wake of terror, the boy saw that he had been given a warning. A warning against what, the being at the top of the street would let him figure out later. For now, it was enough that he knew he’d been warned.

The next book, In the Night Room, boasts one of Straub’s best crime scenes, where a hapless man races out of a NYC hotel, attempting to fend off armed villains and find a cab for the heroine. For a chapter, Straub is in the stylish forward gear of a Robert B. Parker or a Lawrence Block.  In a break with thriller convention, the author tells us how the chase will end before it starts…yet the breathless tension still holds. 

Later on, Underhill (read: Straub) gets to declaim the high-flying epitaph of In the Night Room at a quotidian book signing/author Q&A. 

“Excuse me, Mr. Underhill, but what is the point of mixing genres? Doesn’t combining fiction with fact merely give you license to be sloppy with the facts?”

“I think it’s the other way around,” Tim said. “Fiction lets me really get the facts right. It’s a way of reaching a kind of truth I wouldn’t otherwise be able to discover.”

It all threatens to be simply too on the nose, but Straub evades caricature and floats easily to a smooth finish. In the Night Room investigates the act of storytelling from someone who could really do it. Further details cannot be given! A curious reader must learn these secrets on their own.