Locked Away in Peter Straub’s Basement
The Subversive Master Discusses Destabilizing Narrative
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I must admit that when Electric Literature presented me with the opportunity to interview subversive master of psychological suspense Peter Straub on the occasion of the release of Interior Darkness: Selected Stories, I was not a little intimidated at the prospect. Not only were Straub’s novels Ghost Story, Koko and The Throat dear to me growing up, but his short stories, which I had never read, elevated him to another level completely. Populated by sociopathic teenagers who turn their siblings into somnambulant puppets, murderous kindergarten teachers who slather themselves in human feces, and wicked barristers who fall headlong into self-made purgatories of psychosexual entrapment, Straub’s stories stopped me in my tracks, often with a chuckling grimace, and forced me to take stock anew of a world I wrongly thought I understood. Nor was my giddy apprehension at interviewing Straub ameliorated by the fact that, even by email, Straub is a fiercely intelligent man with a mordant and suffer-no-fools sense of humor. Over the course of a couple of weeks we struck up a warm and complex repertoire. Some highlights not included here were hypothetical riffs on the fate of a fictional character name Romilley “Bud” Bitterman that Straub invented on the spot, Straub’s continuous stream of self-deprecating yet never self-effacing humor, and Straub’s unapologetic fabrication of a quote by Roland Barthes that he insisted, nonetheless, on including in this interview. Straub is a funny, engaging, quick man, with a dark restless mind, a cantankerous streak, and lacerating self-awareness. I thoroughly enjoyed our talk and fully trust that you will, too.
Adrian Van Young: What struck me foremost in reading these stories was a kind of baroque compression whereby the sentences accrue and pile up on each other in a way that both hides and reveals. Hides, in that each story’s revelatory moment is often surrounded by a cascade of less important moments. Reveals, in that these revelatory moments stand out, in turn, from the less revelatory moments that surround them. Take, for instance, this passage from “Ashputtle,” about an ecstatically degenerate and possibly murderous kindergarten teacher, which comes suddenly in the middle of an otherwise normal paragraph: “How it felt to stand naked and besmeared with my own feces in the front yard, moveless as a statue, the same as all nature, classical.” Can you speak to this tendency in your short fiction in terms of what effect you mean it to have on the reader?
Peter Straub: In general, the kind of sentences you are alluding to have several purposes, or so I fondly think. The simultaneous concealment and revelation demonstrates a sort of aspirational quality, often leaching into outright pomposity, on the part of the speaker. He may be trying to present a more sophisticated, better-educated version of himself, so a bit of comedy is freed to float through the atmosphere. Lots of times, however, this kind of internal contradiction signals an emotional disconnection, which may be so pronounced that the speaker literally has in fact no idea how he feels about his subject matter. The reader is intended, I think, to move wool-gathering along, mildly surprised by the (strictly unnecessary) form of these utterances and now and then amused by some local distraction, perhaps eventually to be concerned by the distance between what is being said and what, if anything, is imagined actually to be felt. A great violence might lay hidden behind what turns out to be a strenuous act of denial. You’re a smart guy, you know that absence always involves or invokes a presence, that strictly speaking absence does not exist. It’s like an empty, self-consuming category, an onstage curtain.
However, the sentence you quote, and the many others like it in “Ashputtle,” have an actual provenance. Their use represents an all-but act of appropriation. Tonally, they actually are pretty much a pure example of appropriation. The same set of exhibitions at the Whitney Museum, of which at the time I was a patron, in which I found the John Baldessari painting titled “Ashputtle” had also displayed, on another floor, a good many abstract paintings by Agnes Martin. I loved the Martin paintings. They were astonishingly serene and meditative in feel. Passages from Martin’s journals had been printed up and distributed throughout the galleries. The passages quoted were all surpassingly calm, wide, unpredictable: they were sentiments like “I am the same as all of nature, classical,” and “The work of art has no responsibility to its audience.” Were I to give such excellent sentiments to the mad, furious Ashputtle just coming into being in my mind, I thought, they would acquire an odd and useful resonance. So I did.
AVY: “The reader is intended… perhaps eventually to be concerned by the distance between what is being said and what, if anything, is imagined actually to be felt.” That’s apt and lovely. Granted, pretty much any first-person narrator is unreliable to some degree, but the first-person narrators in these stories seem particularly unreliable, and then in very specific ways. What is your favorite brand of unreliability in a narrator? How does it factor into the frequent portrayals of madness you undertake in your work?
PS: Hmm. Yes. Well. It is a mire, it is a midden. I guess I begin with the conviction that very nearly everyone, well, at least 75–80% of our population, anyhow, serves as its own unreliable narrators — that one’s truest, deepest motives lie locked within a lead-lined tray in a locked lead-lined chamber buried within a locked lead-lined vault deep at the back of a sub-basement beneath a windowless stone fortress guarded by savage dogs and surly, pissed-off deaf mutes. Of this wretched condition, which condemns us to an ongoing emotional ignorance, we remain of course, guess what, happily ignorant, convinced that we are savvy characters with very good ideas of what we are about. For many, a mingled dread and terror, thoroughly repressed, becomes a constant though silent and invisible companion, so close at hand as now and then to be experienced, in fleeting dimply perceived though poignantly experienced moments, as an ally. All of this is the case before we take even a single step past the front door, before we turn the key in the ignition. Once we are outside and moving through the world, we bounce off other people as misguided as ourselves. Deeply hidden plots collide or collude with other motivic and thematic switchbacks hidden no less deeply. Madness can beckon very easily from this situation; the confusion level is positively toxic, and what keeps us out of trouble is chiefly good will and whatever intelligence we can summon from the murk.
I overstate, but not by much.
AVY: You say that, “…what keeps us out of trouble is chiefly good will and whatever intelligence we can summon from the murk.” Granted, you’re referencing real-life here, which has no bearing on fiction, necessarily, but all the same these stories are fairly bleak. In “Blue Rose,” for example, it would seem that the protagonist is aware of the heinousness of his actions toward his little brother and continues on with his life determined to do better — and yet, he only glancingly acknowledges his complicity — indeed, his instrumentality — in what happened. The story concludes on a sinister note. Do you see that kind of redemption through acts of good will and intelligence as available to your characters in these stories?
PS: Real life has no bearing on fiction? Is that what one learns in the theory-academies these days? I am baffled, profoundly. Somewhere in Writing Degree Zero, maybe some other book actually but I don’t think so, doesn’t Roland Barthes — you may find him a bit sketchy, and I understand completely, but I’ve always liked his way around a Ding an sich — say something very like, “As if addressing an intimate friend, one says to the world, ‘The luxury, richness, and amplitude of narrative cannot but derive in the first instance to its relationship, that of connective tissue and torn newspaper hoardings, between itself and the world in which it is given us?’” Probably I do not really understand that sentiment, but it has always reminded me of the conviction I’ve held for years and is by now very dear to me, that Fiction IS Life. Without fiction, a condition in fact unthinkable because impossible, whatever we would call life would be barren, sterile, without memory or enduring emotion, tasteless, like death. Also, and this is really a side issue but at least quite an important one, it is always true that fiction has deep designs on life. It wishes to replace life. I can tell you, it certainly wishes to replace mine. Fiction wants to worm its way into my every memory, even the little desiccated rags and scraps, and stake its claim there, it wants to pitch camp and colonize all the surrounding territory. That’s its god-damned JOB!
Bleakness is really okay with me, you know.
Being sociopathic and without much internal life beyond fear and desire, even in childhood Beevers is way farther along the path toward fiction (Fiction) than most of us. He’s sort of like a tiny, directionless, blocked John Updike, a little Updike without the resources of Shillington and Harvard and Berks County. Harry is bereft of good will, except at times when it seems instrumental and he can display an imitation so flawless it would dupe Mother Theresa and Jacques Lacan, but intelligence is always available to him. Redemption is a meaningless concept to Beevers at any age in his life. Whatever he writes his girlfriend about his little brother and his father is false, actorly, feigned. Bleakness is really okay with me, you know.
AVY: That’s my kind of outlook! And, apropos of the fiction/life discussion: “it is always true that fiction has deep designs on life. It wishes to replace it.” I like that too. I suppose what I mean is that verisimilitude in fiction has always seemed like a false dichotomy to me — that fiction is in some way obligated to reflect the world as it really is. “Relatable” has become such a buzzword these days when it comes to how people connect to narrative in a way that seems antithetical to that signal aim of fiction you cite: “[replacing] life.” Sometimes, the best narratives are profoundly un-relatable to the average person; indeed, many of the narratives in Interior Darkness are. That said, several of the stories in this collection are also deeply experimental, which I was surprised to find given how much commercial success you’ve had as a novelist. Can you discuss the relationship between experimentation and more traditional narrative aims in your fiction? Is there something about the short story that allows you to more fully exercise the former?
PS: I suppose the “relatable” and the “immersive” exist not only side by side but are also holding hands, and both apart and together represent a really satisfying narrative stance. Readerly safety, comfort, security are taken care of; the reader drops her hands, lets her oars drift in the water, and closes her eyes, knowing that her little boat will veer well away from the rapids. For a long time, Stephen King, whom I love as a person and as a writer, attracted readers who understood this as it were Prudential contract to be the only valid relationship between narrative and its audience. Anything that jolted them out of the frame, anything that forced them to notice the very process in which they were so happily engrossed, was experienced as an offense against the act of reading. I guess my doubts about the totality of this project began to come into being after I moved back from London to the U.S. in 1979, started spending a lot of time with my friend the poet Ann Lauterbach, and through her met the poet Charles Bernstein and the novelist and editor Bradford Morrow. None of these people had any real interest in the total immersion school of narrative method. The more time I spent with them, the more limiting I, too, came to find it. I did not want to blow my readers out of the water, but neither did I wish to continue perpetuating a system in which all they felt and understood was what I, their concealed and paternalistic guide and tour director, arrayed before them.
Oh, they were all dead; oh, so HE’s the vampire; hey, that little boy is God! Okay, cool, what else you got in that box?
Without quite being aware that this was what I was doing, I began to loosen the bolts and rattle the floorboards by taking the same crucial bits of character detail — what had been done to whom — and assigning them to different people from novel to novel. So and so grew up at a certain address in Book X; in book Y, another person is given the same address. His life both chimes and does not with the life of the character from the previous book. Traumas were distributed the same way, as if by an amnesiac or indifferent author. Doing these things allowed me to destabilize narrative without damaging the traditional integrity of individual novels. (Much later, Ann Lauterbach’s description of the “whole fragment” helped me clarify this kind of procedure — I mean, to clarify it to myself.) In shorter fiction, with which I was a lot less comfortable/familiar, it was a lot easier to conduct my experiments in plain view: the conventional genre short story, almost always dependent upon a sort of reversal of a conventional polarity, never did strike me as very compelling. Oh, they were all dead; oh, so HE’s the vampire; hey, that little boy is God! Okay, cool, what else you got in that box? I just took it as part of the essential procedure that all bets were off, that you could do anything you felt like, could suppress, heighten, distend, flatten, aerate, amplify as you liked. It is worth remarking that ninety per cent of my short fiction has been published in Brad Morrow’s intrepid journal, Conjunctions, where it rubs up against fiction by writers like William Gass, William Burroughs, John Barth, Brian Evenson, and Rick Moody.
AVY: That’s quite an array of company in Conjunctions. I see the influence of those I’m most familiar with in your work — especially Evenson, Gass and Burroughs. That said, when I was reading this collection I was reminded of nothing so much as the early work of Ian McEwan (First Love, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets), specifically in the way he examines aberrant sexuality and rampant psychosis in this very cool, clinical light. I’m wondering: who are some other authors who have exerted the firehose pressure that we call influence on your work over the years? Who are some in more recent years that you’ve come to admire?
PS: I did always like the amazing writing of those early McEwan stories, and in fact kept on reading and admiring him right along. English novelists have always been very important to me. I liked the tone, the assurance, the implication that the whole central business was going to be taken care of really well, without fireworks or embarrassing displays of self-admiration. I’m speaking of Trollope, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, Iris Murdoch, A S Byatt, Kingsley Amis, Muriel Spark. Of all these writers, Murdoch was far and away the greatest influence on me, especially in The Bell, The Unicorn, The Black Prince, The Nice and The Good. So was John Le Carre, in another way, especially in Tinker, Tailor and The Perfect Spy. Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet was also a huge influence on my work, both technically and emotionally. Henry James took up a lot of real estate in my mind, and the same is true of Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, and John Gardner. I will describe the astonishing virtues and achievements of Donald Harington to anyone capable of listening to me for at least an hour. From when I first read him at the end of the seventies, Stephen King taught me a great deal, and he is still doing do. Newer writers I like a lot are Laird Barron, John Langan, Joe Hill, Caitlin Kiernan. Roberto Bolano has opened my eyes to a great deal, also the intrepid Laszlo Krasznahorkai. I think John Crowley is in a class by himself, of which he is naturally President. Once every decade or so, I reread The Ambassadors and marvel at the beauty of James’s language and technique.
AVY: That’s an estimable and in some ways surprising list. I’m especially interested in your mention of people like George Eliot, A S Byatt and Henry James. Partly due to literary-historical context and partly due to innate stylistic tendencies, these are all what I would call maximalist writers; they revel in the ornate, not only on the sentence level but also when it comes to things like structure, scope, characterization. Reading this collection all at once I was struck as though for the first time by what a gloriously ornate stylist you can be when you put your mind to it. I’m thinking specifically of stories like “Ashputtle” and “Mr. Cuff and Mr. Clubb,” and I’m wondering: is there a part of you that identifies as such a stylist? In a culture that increasingly values the “hot take” and defaults to terseness in its storytelling, what do you believe to be value of having an ornate and, some might even say, challenging style?
PS: When younger, by which I mean before I turned forty, I took an excessive amount of pride in the ornate lyrical complications of my own style. Not long after that spine-stiffening birthday, which I spent largely in a Westport, CT, riverfront bar called The Black Duck, I happened to notice that the style with which I had been so pleased had somehow softened up and run to fat and flab. Nuts to pride, it required a lot more discipline and attentiveness simply to be worthy of reading. I began to work toward a real transparency of style, and the word “work” in this sentence is not an over-statement. I wanted to get out of my own way, but even more than that to get out of the reader’s — to be as presentational as possible, as invisible as I could be while I went about doing my work. I worked this way for years, for at least a decade, without adjusting the formula.
Then I wrote a story called “Hunger: an Introduction,” not included in my Selected Stories, in which I wanted to release another kind of voice altogether, one more ornate, wilder, also more diffuse and pompous, a show-offy voice that demonstrated the aspirations, pretensions, self-satisfactions, and internal insecurities of the man producing it: a man who instead of “ratty” or “ratlike” would say “rodentine.” This was the origin of the style you admire. It began as an elaborate joke. In part because this sort of style was so absolutely different from the voice I began to evolve after I turned forty, it was very enjoyable to write — it was like a kind of holiday from responsibility, an invitation to have fun.
You will notice that in “Ashputtle” and “Clubb and Cuff” this more ornate style is still presented as the voice of specific characters and represents those characters’ evasions of various kinds. However, by the time I came to “Clubb and Cuff,” it no longer seemed merely the demonstration of evasiveness and pretension, but a valid method for presenting a more complex emotional style, a way of dealing with feelings. The revelations no longer needed to be purely unconscious, but a matter of individual will and intellect. It was still fun, but fun of a more exploratory nature. It felt to me like the opening of a room that had always been there but had been overlooked and passed by for a long time — entrance to the room seemed almost a bit dangerous, because in violation of orders that I had taken as my own decades earlier. Yet once I walked (burst) in, I learned that I was not at all damaging myself, but actually sort of expanding myself, not least into a variety of humor that I had been polishing in emails for maybe twenty years. Somewhere in the back of my mind as I write these sentences is the shade of Nabokov, the patron saint of so much American writing, especially in its maximalist and more self-consciously elevated modes.
AVY: Can we switch “rodentine” and “ornate” altogether? Transparency has its trade-offs, sure, but so do “ornate lyrical complications.” I wonder all the same though if it isn’t more rewarding for one to encounter a beautiful mess than a calibrated calibrated masterwork with monumental purpose. What beautiful messes do you most prefer?
I’m curious what you are working on now. Care to elaborate? What’s the new business?
PS: Here are some books, in part or altogether beautiful messes, that I like a lot.
Under the Volcano: Malcolm Lowry wrote his editor at Jonathan Cape a letter of more than twenty pages that justified and explained every square inch of this big, sprawling novel, a sure sign that it contains some substantial messiness. You don’t try that hard unless the wind is whistling down the back of your shirt.
Gravity’s Rainbow: Brilliant, sure, Pynchon always is, but too exuberant and unbuttoned to be anything but a bit of a mess.
The Tidewater Tales: John Barth’s great novel is straining against its own boundaries at every step. A deft, brainy, deeply felt exhilaration.
Women in Love: I think this is DH Lawrence’s absolutely greatest novel, really elevated by its sense of yearning to demolish both the conventions of fiction and its own limits.
These days and for maybe three years now I work away, when permitted by health and hospitals, on a long strange novel called Hello Jack. Jack the Ripper is invoked by a devoted admirer. The fifth-richest woman in America murders her dying husband. A black, retired homicide detective works as a private chauffeur, in which capacity he does a lot of good. Over various iterations of a very odd repeated story, the dead walk again, the young age hideously, and both seem exhausted by the effort. Henry James pops up, thinking hard, as does the 12-year-old Aleister Crowley. There’s a weird painting, but no one can figure it out.