Julia. Ghost Story.
Shadowland. Floating Dragon. The Talisman,
with Stephen King. Mystery. Koko. The Throat. Peter
Straub wrote one bestseller after another in the '70s and '80s,
and won critical awards while doing so. As the paperback market
shriveled in the '90s, his sales fell even as he continued to draw
praise as the most literate of horror writers. He returned to the
#1 spot two years ago with a second King collaboration, Black House,
but sales were dampened by a pub date of 9/15/2001. Now Straub has
written lost boy lost girl, a haunted house tale that some
are calling the best and most accessible novel of his career—and
the author and his publishing team are planning to make it a success.
The lobby is a field of slate hemmed by cliffs of books, as grand
and imposing as the publishing giant it guards. We're in the Random
House building in midtown Manhattan, on our way to speak with Gina
Centrello, president and publisher of the Random House Ballantine
Publishing Group. Now that lost boy lost girl is written and
edited, its fate lies primarily in her hands.
It took some persuading to get Centrello to speak with us, as
she's taken knocks from the press recently, first when she was named
to head Random in place of Ann Godoff, and more recently in a New
York Times magazine portrait of Random CEO Peter Olson. But
Centrello seems happy to see us, offering a firm handshake and a
smile as soon as we arrive. A petite woman, she's dressed in a smart
gray suit and white blouse that set off her intense brown eyes. Her
office is large and spare, with lots of window and a tastefully
appointed seating area where we talk.
"What," we ask, "are you doing to reverse the slide in Straub's
Centrello responds with confidence. "The best thing to do is to
let the book speak for itself. This is vintage Straub. We need
everybody to understand that. We've gotten out a lot of ARCs. Our
first printing is up to a little over 85 [thousand], which is almost
double over what we were able to do on his last book."
"And," Centrello adds, "we changed the packaging a little." She
pulls down a copy of lost boy lost girl from a shelf and
cradles the book in her hands, her enthusiasm obvious. The jacket
depicts a girl in a nightgown standing atop a spooky stairway. "It's
horror, but smart horror. It's attractive, isn't it?"
We note that Straub's name is twice as large as the title and
that, white letters against black, it springs off the jacket.
Centrello nods. "We're going after some of his lapsed readers. We
want to remind them why he's so terrific. He's a commercial writer
but with literary underpinnings. He's 'smart commercial,' as I call
it. And he's at the top of his form right now. "
We point out that the book is much thinner than Straub's usual
"A commercial writer needs to write a book a year. Or consumers
find somebody else to read. So he'll write a shorter book. Nothing
was lost. The book needed this length. It's tight and it's smart. I
wouldn't have wanted to see it much longer than that." To launch the
book, Centrello says, Random will engage in a "kind of rediscover
why you love Peter Straub campaign. " In order to meet the challenge
of drawing younger readers to this veteran author, she refers to
Straub's "association with King, because Steve skews young and old."
To capitalize on the King connection, Random is releasing a new
edition of Black House that will include an excerpt from
lost boy lost girl.
"The thing that I hope to be able to do with Peter," Centrello
emphasizes, "is to get him back on top, writing at the top of his
Peter Straub greets us outside
his Victorian townhouse on Manhattan's Upper West Side. He looks
thinner than in recent photos—the Atkins diet, he says. He's wearing
a yellow polo shirt and slacks, but pulls on a blazer before leading
us on a tour of his five-story home: it's a joke among those who
know Straub that he dresses like a banker and writes like a bandit.
We begin in the downstairs kitchen and work up to his top-floor
office. Books line most of the hallways; posters of Straub's novels
and of films made from them hang on the walls. Straub begins to
show us a bedroom and a woman's voice calls out, "Oh, is it a mess
again?" Susan Straub, cheery and slim, makes an appearance to say
hello. The director of the Read to Me program, she has been married
to the author for 37 years.
We trudge up to Straub's office, a cozy room that's crowded by a
big desk and hundreds of books and albums, most jazz and
classical—Straub's friends who aren't writers tend to be musicians.
Straub leads us to a glass case that shields his collection of first
editions: Frank L. Baums, Ross Macdonalds, Raymond Chandlers. He
selects a white jacketed volume and lays it in our hands. It's H.P.
Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Straub mentions that
he is putting together the Modern Library edition of Lovecraft.
"There was a time, " he tells us when we sit, "when I felt
underappreciated by the powers that be at Random." That time was
1995, when Straub ran substantially late on delivery of The
Hellfire Club, his first Random book after moving from Dutton
(his initial American publisher was Coward, McCann). After two
extensions, in early January of that year Straub was told his
contract would be canceled unless he delivered a publishable
manuscript by March 1—which he did, sweating words for 15 hours a
day, seven days a week. "But that is no longer true," he adds. "I
feel as though I'm in a very supportive position there. I have one
new book under contract. I don't intend to move—I just want to
establish myself a little more firmly before I do another multi-book
We ask Straub why he thinks his sales have dropped. The answer
comes like a ricochet. "Too much time between books. Books that were
sometimes dauntingly long. Books that were overcomplicated. Also I
think people's attention spans have slipped in the past two
Straub is wired with kinetic energy. He moves constantly, talks
quickly and laughs easily, even blushes, emotions racing across his
face. This is an open and likable man, we think. Peering at us
through a pair of expensive brown glasses, blinking often, in his
natty clothes and frank demeanor he seems not unlike one of Kenneth
Grahame's endearing characters from The Wind in the
Like Centrello, Straub believes that future success for his
writing depends upon frequent, shorter books. "I can do my best to
write a book a year, which sounds like a very agreeable and sensible
plan. I want to go back to writing the way I did when I was much
younger. Then I assumed that you could write a presentable and
meritorious novel within six months. And I think the merits of those
books should lead to their attracting an increasing number of
readers. That is my simple-minded plan, which is wholeheartedly
endorsed by Random House. And built into that is the essential
aspect: to keep writing, on the theory that if I keep writing I'm
going to discover the good stuff, go deeper into emotional writing
Straub was born in Milwaukee in 1943. At age seven he was struck
by a car and nearly died. He endured numerous surgeries and
developed a stammer that still surfaces when he gets nervous or
excited. For solace he turned to books. A love of literature coupled
with an acute awareness of life's sufferings have informed his work
and life ever since, though years of psychoanalysis have helped with
the latter. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin he
moved to Dublin with Susan, where he wrote his first novel,
Marriages (1975), a flawed poetic tale about an adulterous
American expatriate. He followed with another literary effort,
Under Venus, that failed to find a publisher. Desperate for
success, Straub wrote a horror novel, Julia. That gripping
ghost story found readers worldwide, just as Straub had found his
genre. Like many writers, Straub loves and respects genre but
refuses to be squeezed by its conventions. "As I am repeatedly and
inevitably described as a horror writer," he says, "what comes to my
mind is that horror then must be a very open-ended field. If they're
going to call The Throat, a novel in which there is no
supernatural intimation, a horror novel, then horror is really
expansive. Its boundaries are porous. It can take in any kind of
human action. What distinguishes it as horror is its angle of
The Throat won the Bram Stoker Award, given by the Horror
Writers Association, for Best Novel of 1993—one of many such honors
Straub has won. Some of his award statuettes and sculptures rest on
a mantel in his office. We observe that all are for genre work
"Many readers and critics," he says, "rely on preexisting
distinctions and therefore will read certain writers in a different
way then they will read other writers, and they will have different
expectations. Once every 20 years or so the literary world as a
whole comes to a consensus about the genre writer whom they will
elect to be a real writer. It happened to Ross Macdonald. "
"It happened to Elmore Leonard," we suggest.
"Yes, and it happened to Steve. They get a kind of
respectability, but because they have it nobody else can have
Twenty years ago, King and Straub made writing and publishing
history when, in a method that then seemed impossibly futuristic,
they wrote The Talisman on word processors linked by
telephone. But, Straub says, he wrote lost boy lost girl by
hand. "Let me show you the notebooks." He goes to his desk and
brings back a large ledger. We flip through its stiff pages. Each is
covered with a jagged scrawl, the color of the ink changing as often
as every few lines.
"This is the first of the notebooks I wrote in," Straub explains.
"For some reason it flowed along and that's partly because I love
using pens. Writing this way is more immediate, and it's certainly
more physical and more grounded.
"We were at a conference in Florida," he recalls, "and Neil
Gaiman went with me to the Levengers outlet. Levengers is
pornography for writers, you know. I saw him buying all of these
goofy colors, gray ink and pink ink. As we drove back he said, 'Now,
Peter, wouldn't it be fun to write a book in gray ink?' And I said,
'You know, maybe it would.' So I tried gray for awhile but I settled
into blue and green." Straub's Visconti pens, the Boorum & Pease
journals and "Kathy Kinser (eighty words a minute)" get a nod in the
acknowledgments for lost boy lost girl . So does Straub's
editor: "for her inspired editing, profound thanks to extraordinary
Boudreaux occupies one small
office of many on the 18th floor of the Random House building. Within
this warren of glass and steel, she works surrounded by books she's
edited, including titles by Adriana Trigiani, author of the Big
Stone Gap novels, and Arthur Phillips, who wrote Prague.
When we go to see Boudreaux after speaking to Centrello, the editor,
who's 38, dark-haired and strikingly attractive, greets us warmly.
The first novel that Boudreaux worked on with Straub, whom she calls
"the epitome of a gentleman," was the collaborative Black House.
Boudreaux reenacts for us her first telephone encounter with Straub's
co-author, pretending to speak into a phone. "Mr. King, Mr. King,
Mr. King.' And he said, 'Hey kid, call me Steve. We're going to
have fun.' They really volleyed that manuscript back and forth.
It came 100 pages, 100 pages, 100 pages," Boudreaux says, snapping
her fingers at each "100." Boudreaux adds that on that book, "Peter
and I went through every possible question, query, comma that I
could possibly come up with. He called me one day to say, 'I disagree
with one suggestion you're making about the end.' He said that it
was as much my book as it was theirs, and that if I really felt
strongly about making the change, they would certainly make it.
I thought, 'Dear Lord, you don't have to change it. You're Stephen
King and Peter Straub!'
"I think he does scary as well as anyone I've ever read," says
Boudreaux when we ask her to comment on Straub's appeal. "And the
craftsmanship of the prose is so good. His copyeditor and I always
talk about what we're going to make Peter write when he wants to
stop writing horror—how we're going to get him to write a comedy of
manners, because he could do that beautifully."The Author
"Stephen King said to me that Lee Boudreaux's work on Black
House was splendid. He never says that," Straub remarks over a
plate of grilled trout. We have left the townhouse and are now
sharing lunch at a restaurant a few blocks away.
"After 9/11," Straub remembers, "I found I couldn't work for a
long time. I was really depressed. I did nothing but read a lot of
books and go see movies. I really didn't know what I wanted to write
and it took me a long time to assemble lost boy lost
Straub's new novel reaffirms
his standing as the most sophisticated and, along with King, most
persuasive of contemporary novelists of the dark fantastic. The
book, a brilliant variation on the haunted house tale, distills
themes and characters from Straub's long career. Written from multiple
viewpoints, the narrative shuttles disturbingly through time and
space as novelist Tim Underhill travels back home to attend the
funeral of his sister-in-law, a suicide. Tim spends time especially
with his nephew, Mark, 15, who found his mother's naked dead body
in the bathtub. Meanwhile, a serial killer is snatching teen boys
from a local park, and Mark and a friend begin to explore a nearby
abandoned house. Mark grows obsessed with the house, then disappears.
In time, the house is revealed as the source of the evil that stalks
Tim's hometown, but also as the site of a possible great marvel.
"Why did you want to write lost boy lost girl?" we
"One connection was my feeling about my son, who's now 26. I
wasn't aware of this until I was well into the book, but it's about
a love that a man feels for a younger male relative of his, and his
wish that the boy not be damaged.
"If there is another connection it has to do with technique. I
began to feel I had a way into it only when I started thinking about
the way Paul Scott's Raj Quartet is organized. I began to
think that I could make something of the material that I had in mind
if a point of view kept being dislocated and different people
reported their responses to the same events. That led me into the
matter of narrative reliability and a kind of essential ambiguity,
which interested me enormously as a way to destabilize what would
otherwise be a ghost story or a serial killer story. For about six
minutes the book had a sub-title. It was lost boy lost girl: the
uses of horror, only that seemed like a giveaway."
The "giveaway" refers to the possibility that the entire
narrative can, and according to Straub perhaps should, be perceived,
as he puts it, as a "compensatory fantasy" made up by Underhill to
deal with his grief over his nephew's disappearance and, maybe,
death. But Straub knows that many will read the book only for its
glittering surface. "A lot of readers will say, 'Okay here's this
ancient hack who's written far too much and we know what he's about.
' You know if you read it that way it's going to be a very
mysterious book." To deflect those who approach his books strictly
as genre entertainment, who fail to probe their kaleidoscopic
structures—and perhaps to explore his own nagging questions about
his work—Straub several years ago created the inimitable Putney
Tyson Ridge, Ph.D., a smalltown academic whose reviews of Straub's
novels occupy a prominent place on Straub's Web site (www.net-site.com/straub). Ridge, allegedly a boyhood
pal of Straub's, has this to say, for example, about the author and
his biggest success, Ghost Story: "One of my friend's most
defining traits is literal-mindedness. A literal minded person in
the grip of mystic fancies can only press them to the dubious
conclusion that reality itself is a variety of fiction. Ghost
Story avoids this ripely decadent notion, but only barely...That
the reading public responded positively to this balderdash is...
extremely discouraging to a responsible educator like myself. The
reliable Elmore 'Dutch' Leonard knew what was up. His review of the
book contained the clear-sighted sentence, 'This isn't fiction, it
is hype.' The novel does contain some excellent descriptions of
When David Gernert left his post as editor-in-chief of Doubleday
in 1996 to launch a literary agency, he had six clients: John
Grisham, Stewart O'Nan, Peter Guralnik, Mark Childress, James W.
Huston—and Peter Straub. Now the David Gernert Company encompasses
four agents with about 100 clients. Only two of those writers are on
show in the quiet, chic reception area of the firm's midtown
Manhattan offices, however: Straub, represented by a stack of
Black House copies, and Grisham, via displays of A Painted
House and Bleachers.
An assistant serves us a delicious cup of coffee, which we praise
as we are shown into Gernert's office. The agent rises from his
chair, grinning, and insists we follow him to an anteroom to admire
the new Keurig machine he's bought—a large, shiny metal contraption
that, he says, brews one perfect cup at a time. Settling back in, we
ask him about Straub's trouble at Random over the Hellfire
Club contract. "From my perspective," Gernert says, "the short
version of it is that Peter suffered from being one of the authors
to whom Joni Evans decided to pay a ton of money to steal from
another publisher. And he didn't write the book promptly. So when
the subsequent administration was running things, the first thing
they did, as always happens, is look for books that their
predecessor paid a lot of money for and then try to undo them in
some way. And that's what happened."
With thinning sandy hair and goatee, Gernert, lean, lanky and
blue eyed, in a tan suit and open neck white shirt, fits right into
his stylish office of black leather and blond wood. He speaks
softly, in a kind of drawl, and seems amazingly at ease for a man
running one of the most admired literary agencies in New York. We
ask him about Straub's sales.
"It's important to realize that while his sales have declined,
the mass market sales continue to be in the 400,000-copy range. So
there are still a lot of readers out there. There's still a very
good base to build on. If an author whose sales have declined writes
a book that people really spark to, then you can build the author
just the way you would build a new author, except they already have
a substantial number of readers to build on. Gina is committed to
building Peter. Lee is more committed than anyone could possibly be.
Peter is committed to it. So already you have the participants
agreeing on what the real situation is. Nobody is pretending that
Peter has as many readers as he wants. He wants to have a million
readers in paperback, and in hardcover a couple of hundred
The film rights to lost boy lost girl, Gernert explains,
are being marketed by the Endeavor Agency, on Gernert's
recommendation. Only two Straub novels have reached the screen:
Julia, released in America as The Haunting of Julia,
and Ghost Story, which roared into the box office that same
year—1981, a long time ago. "Peter has not had the greatest luck on
the film side," Gernert observes. "For a reason that's fairly
apparent, which is that to take one of Peter's big novels and get a
110-page screenplay out of it is an enormous challenge. They're very
complex stories. What's amazing about the new book is that when
Peter said, 'It's shorter,' I wondered if he'd jettisoned the
wonderful interconnectivity that to me is a trademark of his books,
and he didn't. It's still in there. It's just tighter. "
Although Gernert's primary responsibility to Straub is fiduciary,
he advises on myriad matters and we're curious as to what he thinks
Straub's strengths are as an artist.
"He is a very gifted, natural storyteller. He also, at a very
sophisticated level, understands how novel construction
works—probably at a level beyond anyone else that I've worked with.
People who think of him as a 'horror writer' have no idea how good a
writer he really is. The number of literary writers who name Peter
among their five favorite writers is enormous. He's at the very high
end of what might be called 'commercial' writers."The Author
Over coffee at the restaurant, we decide to plunge ahead and ask
Straub about personal matters. We're particularly interested in
whether he, like some other writers who trade in the fantastic,
harbors a spiritual side. "There are some scenes in your books," we
suggest, "where the characters seem to experience a kind of mystical
Straub looks surprised. He
flushes and begins to stammer. "Whew. This, these, this, these experiences
come to me, well they usually come to me about once every 10 years,
I think they happen with some frequency in childhood. It's like
having your eyes washed so you actually know what you're looking
at is the real reality and everything else is kind of a dim, veiled,
dirtied up version of it. The authenticity of what you perceive
is undeniably apparent.
"The last time, I had an experience in my kitchen on a dark,
overcast morning. We had forgotten to raise up the awning, so it
held a big black belly of water. My kids were running around the
kitchen. My wife went out there with a broom and she poked the broom
up into the bottom of the bulge and this amazing cascade of water
shot up. The cats ran in opposite directions and my children jumped
up and down with glee and then I looked around the kitchen and there
was this sacred toaster there, this sacred Cuisinart. There were the
pots and pans, every one of them swarming with life. It's the
sacredness of the actual world. It is a powerful experience."
We allow that we've experienced the same and Straub thrusts out a
hand for us to shake. His face glowing, his eyes as clear as dawn,
for the moment he looks like a birthday kid, although we know he
turned 60 this past April. And how did that feel?
"It was a milestone that came as a shock even though I was 59 for
a whole year. Sixty seemed like another order of being and yet
internally I felt so good. I feel centered. I feel productive. I
feel content. But I can see the end, you know. It might be 20 years
away or 30 years away or 15 years away. I know that I'm not going to
write another 16 books. But I do want to write something better then
I ever have.
"You know," he adds, taking a sip from his cup of decaf, "I'm
trying to lead a very nice life funded by what I do. I'd be a wreck
if I didn't have this magical outlet."
|Thanks to Bill Schafer of Subterranean
Press for sending a copy of Bill Sheehan's critical biography
of Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, to use as
background for this article—Jeff