Sunday, October 13, 2019

At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub (2000).

This is less of a review and more of a first introduction.  Maybe it's best to think of it as a sort of user's guide, or the barest sketch of a cartographer's map.  What I'm really here for today is to get readers to shake hands with a guy who's worth knowing.  Even if he is kind of strange.   It's with this idea and setup in mind that Bill Sheehan's At the Foot of the Story Tree is a useful glimpse into the literary world of one of the Gothic genre's most interesting practitioners.  Sheehan is also a big help in that his book might bring a greater awareness to a talent could be in danger of falling off the map.  His name is Peter Straub, and he still (as of this date) writes Horror fiction for a living.

It is just possible that the name sounds familiar, yet the face or work it's associated with is somewhat vague, or hard to recall.  Maybe some readers will have heard something about this particular writer, but have forgotten his work with the passage of time.  Or else his name was mentioned and no one ever bothered to find out just who he was, or what made him in any way special.  Despite this, I'd argue that Straub's work is capable of a defense on its own merits.  Before we jump to conclusions, however, it helps to get a sense of the historical setting which in Straub first made his name.  If this sounds like a digression, I'd argue it's not on the basis that context is everything.  Gaining a proper literate understanding of Straub and his work means placing him in the proper setting from which he first emerged on the publishing scene.  To do this, it is perhaps best to start out with a decent summary of Straub's artistic milieu, and in particular the other writer who sort of defines it.

This is where Bev Vincent's Stephen King Illustrated Companion comes in handy.  Vincent is able to provide a neat capsule snapshot of Straub's context.  The irony is he does this by talking about the work of someone else.  "In part", Vincent writes, "it was all a matter of being at the right place at the right time.  Readers who had experienced the terrors of Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist were primed for more, and (Stephen King) delivered.  By the time his third novel, The Shining hit the best-seller lists, King was already being called "the master of modern horror".  Seemingly overnight, he had become a "brand name" author.  However, few of the other writers he identified as his peers in other genres at the time are still household names...(6)".  It is here that the subject of this article comes in.  

It is debatable whether the Horror genre has ever been in any way respectable.  However, Straub, like King, was a beneficiary of a time when the genre was at it's most commercially viable.  To that extent, publishing houses everywhere seemed willing to lap up the next kid who showed up on their doorsteps with a Shilling Shocker manuscript in hand.  This setup seems to have been made possible by a previous explosion of talent during the preceding decades.  The 50s and 60s can be thought of as the time when Horror fiction began to come of age.  The genre had undergone some growing pains in the form of a series stylistic leaps and bounds dating all the way back to the Victorian Era.  Writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne brought the genre to mainstream awareness, while H.P. Lovecraft and the Weird Circle helped begin it's modern identity.  The process of bringing Horror to it's full maturity seems to have been the work of artists like Ray Bradbury and a group of writers known as the California Sorcerers.

They were the first to find ways of taking the horrors into settings like a modern suburban home,or of re-introducing the haunts of old folklore into the middle of a busy 20th century street, and turning all of it loose to mess up our cozy conceptions of order and stability.  King and Straub were effectively the inheritors of this tradition of the Modern Gothic, and it is safe to say that the latter was no slouch when it came to living up to his inheritance.

As Sheehan explains on the very first page of his study: "Peter Straub first came to prominence with the 1979 publication of Ghost Story, a gaudy, expansive novel of supernatural terror that was deeply rooted in the classic tradition of the American Gothic tale.  Ghost Story was an immediate popular  success that quickly established itself as one of the seminal works of late twentieth century horror fiction.  Like the very best examples of its kind - Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Stephen King's The Shining spring immediately to mind - it offered  conclusive evidence that art and entertainment, literature and "popular fiction" need not be regarded as mutually exclusive categories.

"Despite his apparent status as an "overnight success", Straub had been a working writer for more than a decade before Ghost Story put him on the map, having published two slender volumes of poetry (Open Air and Ishmael), a modest, rather tentative mainstream novel (Marriages), and a pair of striking, increasingly ambitious horror novels (Julia and If You Could See Me Now).  With Julia, Straub achieved a modest degree of financial success and began the process of discovering his own true voice.  At the same time, he demonstrated an instinctive affinity for the requirements of the Gothic form, a form that proved particularly suited to his own sensibility and narrative gifts.  With If You Could See Me Now, his grasp of those requirements deepened.  With Ghost Story, he achieved a new level of mastery, and made the form his own (11)".

I have written elsewhere that it is possible to notice how certain creative projects during the 70s and 80s tended to coalesce around the work of several differing authors into something resembling an informal artistic group similar to Bradbury and the Southern California writers.  I'd argue that Straub counts as one of that number.  By saying he is an inheritor, he is also part of a much larger literary tradition.  That would make his work uniquely placed and crafted in such as way as to help further set the definitions of Modern Gothic literature.  As such, this article counts as part of an ongoing series that examines the work of writers like Straub, and how they have shaped our understanding of the stories we enjoy.  It also helps grant a certain perspective on the nature of our favorite books and films over the past century and a half, when it's possible to see them as part of a greater, albeit informal, artistic movement.

Since this article is meant to be a user's guide, it's focus will be more on filling in a general outline of the author, as well as the thematic nature of his works.  Because of this, an emphasis will have to be placed on where he stands in the historical continuum of the Horror genre.  Straub's case is interesting in that he is one of the most self-aware writers operating in the confines of this particular category of narrative.  The best place to start is to discover how his life led to the work.

The Shaping of the Author's Mind.

Straub's origins seems to have been both ordinary and unremarkable to start with.  There is no discernible peculiarity or quirk of personality to hint at the Gothic depths of his later imaginings.  His parents were Gordon Anthony Straub, and Elvena (Nilsestuen) Straub.  One was a salesman, the other a nurse (12).  The one feature about them that stands out is just how easy it is for them to fade into the background of things.  There is no discernible record in the family history of any kind of want, need, or desire that separates them from others.  The overall picture of the couple is that of an unremarkable middle-American family, more or less content in the ordinariness of their life, and with no real interest or reasons for rocking the boat.  If anyone wants, they may be described in terms such as "Hobbit-like", however such labels tend to encourage a narrowing view of individuals who, after all, were real life people.  "As Straub later remarked, "the salesman wanted him to become an athlete, the nurse thought he would do well as either a doctor or a Lutheran minister, but all he wanted to do was learn to read (ibid)".

The presence of such a desire, especially in a young child's mind, is an interesting social phenomena.  Like the coming and going of the seasons, or Mt. Everest, it's something that just happens and is there.  The difference seems to be the fact that wanting to read is one of those developments that always seems to lie somewhere in that strange borderland between the commonplace and the rare.  Readers are more numerous than a blue moon, yet our numbers seem to be enough of a minority that whenever one of us does occur, there's still a certain amount of novelty left around for the rest of society to marvel over it.  It is a phenomena which is both strange and natural enough at the same time.  It is therefore a paradox, and perhaps it will always be the fate of the novel, or work of art, to be regarded as a sometimes amusing or troubling anomaly.

The good news is Straub never seemed to let this imaginative desire go in any way to his head, not even when the siren call of early acclaim beckoned.  "He taught himself to read while still in kindergarten, and by the time he arrived in first grade, he had already developed a taste for fiction of an exotic and adventurous nature.  At the same time, his youthful penchant for storytelling began to emerge, and he found himself much "in demand around campfires and in backyards on summer evenings (ibid)".  Even here, while the novelty of a creative mind was present, and friends and family might have realized that they had a reader on their hands, this in itself never made him stand out as a freak.  In this case it's probable that Straub was luckier than even he realized.  "All in all, except for this singular regard for narrative and its effects, Straub lived the normal, unexceptional life of a middle-class child in a blue-collar American city.

"But normality ended abruptly when, at the age of seven, he was struck by an automobile and very nearly killed.  He underwent a classic near-death experience, survived, and went on to endure a lengthy traumatic period of recovery...In the extended aftermath of that accident, Straub was subjected to numerous operations, was kept out of school for more than a year, and was confined to a wheelchair for many months.  Eventually, he would recreate this experience in two separate novels, Mystery and The Throat, each of which would present the event from the perspective of a different character (ibid)". 

It is just possible to make the claim that a lot of Straub's work springs from this sense of childhood trauma.  That's certainly the impression that Sheehan's words can have on the reader.  In this sense it almost sounds like either a cliche, or else the personal experience of the cliche itself which resulted in the trajectory that Straub's career took.  If there is any truth in the idea that the experience of a trauma can shape an artist's mind, then it's ironic for one thing.  This sense of irony comes from the realization that a door has been left open for tracing a direct line of descent from traumatic influence to artistic result.  It's a cause/effect cliche that many Horror authors would balk at.  Straub seems to be the one exception that would go at least some ways toward justifying it.  I am at least willing to go so far as to not deny a certain amount of validity to the idea that personal traumatic experience can sometimes shape an artist's creative output.  The trouble is this also opens the floodgates for all the typical accusations that practitioners of the Horror genre have had to face over the years.  In particular the charge that they are all, at their core, just a bunch of anti-social misfits trying to passively take out their aggressions through their fiction.  I'd have to argue against this because according to Straub, the biggest takeaway from the accident was an empathy for the troubles of others.  Even if I were willing to grant that there might be cases in which the typical accusation were true, I'm afraid Straub's results still don't fit the bill.  His focus on the macabre springs less from the desire to celebrate, but rather both to explain and, if possible, bring order to chaos.

Still, the primary formative influences for Straub are all centered in and around this sequence of events.  These passages do go a way to granting a level of insight into certain elements that would later resurface in Straub's major work.  If there's any criticism to be made, it's that somehow Sheehan never stops to inquire which texts the author read in his childhood.  Such an insight could have helped to gain an even greater understanding of why the Modern Gothic appealed to the author's creative sensibilities.  It's an oversight that sort of compromises these portions of Sheehan's study.  It seems like a wider casting of the critical net was called for in these moments, and for some reason we are never given it.  The good news is that it is still not too late to ask Straub which number of books he remembers from his childhood, and why.  It is a task that any critic who takes the genre seriously must apply themselves to if we want a clearer picture of the formation of the artist's mind before it's too late.

Still, Sheehan is able to do a more or less admirable job of tracking Straub's influences during his teenage to college years.  "Eventually Straub's life resumed its interrupted progress and proceeded, "as if scripted," through through a series of intellectual stages that continued to shape his essential character.  He received a scholarship at Milwaukee's Country Day School (an institution he would cheerfully malign in his 1980 novel, Shadowland), where his interests in literature and, additionally, music would continue to evolve.  He discovered jazz, which would become a lifelong passion, and which spoke to him "of utterance beyond any constraint: passion and liberty in the form of speech on the far side of the verbal border."  Within the verbal borders, he discovered, at just the right moment, the classic interpreters of youthful angst and adolescent restlessness, Thomas Wolfe and Jack Kerouac, and began to form the impression that a form of "transcendent wholeness" was potentially available through precise, rigorously developed forms of artistic expression.

"From Country Day School, Straub moved on to the University of Wisconsin, where he earned an honors degree in English and continued to encounter new and vital aesthetic influences.  (Henry James, among others, entered his life at about this time.)  Afterward, like the unnamed narrator of his 1994 novella, "Pork Pie Hat," he moved to New York City, acquired a masters degree from Columbia University, and then returned to the Midwest.  In 1966, he married the former Susan Bitker and took a position as an English teacher at his old alma mater, Country Day School, now known as the University School of Milwaukee.

"Straub's teaching career lasted for three years, and they were largely good ones.  He was permitted to design his own courses, and elected to introduce his students to a number of his own favorite novelists: Jane Austen, E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence, the Brontes, etc (13-14)".  It is around here that our information into Straub's aesthetic upbringing comes more or less to a close as far as Sheehan is able or willing to give.  There are a handful of other influences that can be cited.  Most of them are poets like John Asherby, Elizabeth Bishop, and Ted Hughes.  The only other novelist to be mentioned is Anthony Trollope.  The list of names Sheehan gives us, and Straub's course as he waded through each of their works is invaluable.  However it's also for that same reason that such a short space devoted to it is also kind of frustrating.
I've reached a point where I'm starting to think that the kind of artistic, literary education Sheehan outlines above almost needed more like two or three chapters, or perhaps a whole book-length study of their own.  The reason for this is because I've begun to realize it is precisely the growth of the artist's mind under the shaping influence of an artistic imagination, and how this impacts their relation to real life, that is perhaps the closest thing to any sort of major key for an accurate read on the nature of their works.  I believe this is a general rule that applies not just to Straub alone, but to all artists.  I think in order to understand something that heavy, it kind of helps to know which stories helped form their way of writing and looking at the world.  If this is something Sheehan is in any sense aware of, the limited space devoted to these texts and authors just feels like an opportunity that got away.  The good news is that Sheehan still delivers enough context to leave us with something like a beginners outline into just what kind of Gothic artist Straub is.  In order to find that out, however, it helps to take the elements of his writing one at a time.  Starting with:   

Weaknesses.

There is a sort of built in irony at the heart of Sheehan's study.  It's greatest strength is that it is the most comprehensive resource when it comes to outlining and describing to the plot of Straub's novels.  From unpublished early efforts all the way to later tomes that have fallen under the radar, Sheehan's is the only effort I know so far that has been able to provide all that the curious reader will need in order to gain a more or less comprehensive understanding of each one of Straub's individual novels.  The irony is that sometimes Sheehan's strengths tend to unintentionally highlight Straub's occasional creative weaknesses.

The funny thing is that based just on Sheehan's in-depth reading and critique, I can sometimes find myself arriving at an opposite aesthetic judgment from that of the author.  I was able to form an opinion of whether the resulting story was good or not based on the detail with the which the author both outlined and described them.  This was a recurring phenomenon for me.  It happened with five novels from Straub's bibliography: If You Could See Me Now, Koko, Mystery, The Throat, and Mr. X.  I know he never meant this to happen.  It's just that Sheehan is such a thorough excavator of these novels that he is able to give a clue as to their quality, and hence to their intrinsic artistic worth as fiction.  The result when it comes to each of the five texts cited above is that they function as perfect displays of those moments when Straub's own narrative strategies tend to trip him up.

If Sheehan's critical strengths can sometimes amount to a discovery of Straub's minus qualities, the plus side is that it can perhaps enable the casual reader to reach the beginnings of an understanding of those elements in Straub's narrative strategies that can sometimes hinder his work more than it helps.  With this in mind a few brief words about Straub's faults as an author can assist toward knowing just what kind of goals he sets for himself as an artist.  His biggest issue, so far as I can see is that he likes to play narrative, stylistic games with the  reader.  He seems to fall into a continual trap of confusing narrative technique with the narrative itself.  For instance, he will alter or toy with the resolution of books like Koko or Mystery because it seems to him the right or at least aesthetically pleasing thing to do.  The trouble with this line of thinking is that it's the same familiar pitfall of confusing style with substance.

Straub's trouble in all these instances is that in trying to be clever with the structure or narratological choices of his novels, the results can sometimes wind up as clever-by-half.  A good example is the ending of his second supernatural novel, If You Can See Me Now.  After giving it some thought, I do wonder if a better choice for a resolution could have gone as follows.  The crux of the novel is that it is all told from a first-person perspective, with the exception of a brief, omniscient, third point of view prologue.  This limited perspective is a technique that has been utilized to good effect by authors in the past.  The best familiar examples would by Poe's Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat, and perhaps it is Poe whom Straub should have used as an example.

See Me Now takes us inside the mind of Miles Teagarden, a troubled young man with something of a guilty past.  He grew up in a small rural Wisconsin town with his cousin, Alison Greening.  It's clear that Miles' feelings for Allison were more than platonic.  One night, the two of them went out for a swim in a nearby lake.  Something happened, and Miles was the only one to come back from the lake alive.  He returns to his hometown of Arden as an adult after the breakup of his marriage, and the floundering of his academic career.  His return coincides with a series of grisly local murders, each more savage than the last.  Pretty soon, suspicion begins to center around Miles.  It doesn't take long before he begins to realize that Alison has also returned to her old haunts, and is slowly orchestrating these murders in a way that is less than natural.  It also becomes clear to Miles that he and his cousin are on a collision course with each other, and the results could be deadly.

The setup is your basic standard Gothic situation.  You have a neat assemblage of more or less typical ghost story elements.  There is the troubled protagonist with a guilty secret in his past.  There is the hint of a vengeful wraith who is meant to personify this same sense of guilt.  There is the isolated, puritanical small-town with its standard suspicion of any and all outsiders.  If you had to make a complaint about this setup, it's that it all sounds like something we've seen before.  This in itself, however does not have to mean the results are bad.  If Straub is working with a familiar, old formula, then what matters is how good he is at investing these old tropes with enough life to bring them off the page.  In retrospect, perhaps the best way this could have been done is through the correct use of ambiguity.

The way the novel ends is with Miles confronting the ghost of Alison in a showdown where the life of another, the narrator's young niece, is caught in the middle of their struggle.  I think the best way Straub could have made this pivotal sequence (and hence the novel as a whole) work would have been to bring the ghost out of the shadows through a slow, deliberate build-up that maximizes the tension of the scene.  He could describe the haunt's entrance in whatever correct enough words would make the reader's hair stand on end.  Then maybe he could have a phantasmagorical, stream of consciousness style description where much is implied, yet never stated outright.  Perhaps the best thing Straub could have done here is introduce a cut in the action, and then have his protagonist resume his narration like a month or so later.  Everything sounds normal, yet it could also hint that maybe there's still something just slightly off-kilter about the resolution.  Let the narrator be vague about what happened.  Did he triumph, is he possessed, or is he in fact a psychotic and the whole ghost angle was just one of his delusions?  Has he come within inches of murdering one of his own family, and is now still running around loose, with the possibility that he might strike again?

Such an ending might not be new to the genre, yet it can still work if handled right.  Instead Straub chooses to make his protagonist less complicated, and hence less interesting, by playing things straight where a more disjointed approach might have helped.  As a result, Miles winds up being right, more often than not.  The trouble is I'm not sure it's the kind of story the benefits from a normal protagonist.  Here, for instance, is how Sheehan describes Straub's denouement: "In the end, the...purity of purpose that has fueled his lifelong obsession with Alison Greening allows him, in the face of all his manifest limitations, to become a kind of hero.  His instinctive urge to protect (his cousin, sic) the living Alison from the murderous designs of her dead namesake ensures his survival, even as it binds him to the enigmatic terms of a new and unspoken vow, a "contract" based on his continued acceptance of the responsibilities he has voluntarily assumed (73)".

In retrospect, perhaps it is the word "obsession" placed next to (if not automatically equated with) the phrase "purity of purpose" that strikes the wrong kind of false note.  It's only now, on further reflection, that I'm able to understand why the best critical rewrite I could come up with is to let Miles be the novel's ultimate true villain.  The simple fact is that I'm no longer certain whether a book like If You Could See Me Now would ever get past a proof-reader's desk in today's social climate.  The curious part is just this.  All the documentary evidence points to one inescapable conclusion.  There is nothing in Straub's behavior, or psychological history that leaves him open to the charge of psychological obsession, or the various related vices that are making headlines these days.  Instead it all seems to come down to an inability to decide on just what was the right decision to take his book.  The novel seems torn apart by two driving forces.  On the one hand, there is the plot element, which consists of various Gothic tropes.  The tropes themselves seem familiar enough, and the basic setup is more or less pedestrian.  Perhaps if Straub had focused on just the  plot alone, he might have been able to cook up a decent, if minor, bedtime chiller for adults.

What gets in the way of this is the second element.  This part is best described as Straub's thematic concerns.  These concerns make their presence felt in Straub's statement of his character's personal beliefs.  Sheehan excavates these beliefs as follows.  "Beyond this (the main character, sic) believes in perhaps two things: the power of the past and the existence, however remote or inaccessible it seems, of another world: the world of Spirit.  Reflecting...Miles remarks: ...I have always held to the past.  I thought that it could, would, should be repeated indefinitely, that it was the breathing life in the heart of the present."  As to the world of Spirit, Miles believes in it implicitly, and even thinks he glimpsed it once, in the form of a runaway stagecoach careening toward him on a road outside of Boston.  He comments repeatedly on the efficacy of "magic substances," and believes that certain people...are "inhabited by Spirit" in a way that most of us are not (72)".

To be fair, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with such thematic concerns as the ones Straub provides for us above.  It is at least a possibility that such idealism can furnish some good material for the author that knows how to use it.  The trouble is it's an open question in my mind whether or not Straub has as sure a handle on his themes and story material as he perhaps should have.  At least not in this case.  It seems like the novel's thematic, Otherworld concerns, and it's plot are both headed in different directions.  His themes keep Straub looking for some kind of upward path, while the story proper seems to be strictly concerned with exploring all the dark corners.  This amounts to a schism in the narrative that Straub is never quite able to mend.  The result is a novel with an identity crisis, as the author can't quite figure out what it is he is trying to write.

I can't help thinking that similar failures are at work in novels like Koko, where it all sounds like Straub is just trying to tamper again with the genre of the crime thriller because the kind of story he is composing has been done before in differing formats.  As a result it seems like the best course of action he can think of is to subvert them and hope it will be enough to impress the reader.  The trouble is it just comes off as contrived.  Also, Koko features at least one segment where one of the characters comes into contact with what may be ghosts.  If this is the case, then the whole effect seems more tacked on than anything integral to the plot.  I suppose there might have been a way to make such elements work, but Straub never seemed to find them.  This obsession of tampering with format expectations because they've been done before also plagues Mystery and Mr. X, the latter of which sort of rips off See Me Now in it's denouement.

Strengths.    

The good news is that Straub is not an empty vessel.  If a genuine story idea occurs to him, and he's able to retain his confidence in the inspiration enough flesh it out on the page, then the results are satisfying more often than not.  There's an irony at the heart of Straub's missteps.  It would be easy to write off these fumblings as the outcome of an author who is a bit too caught up in his own pretensions.  Whether or not this accusation is understandable, I am not convinced that it applies in Straub's case.  In fact the truth is something of the opposite.  Whenever Straub botches one of his novels he makes the mistake under one of the most genuine forms of Romantic conviction.  Straub as an author believes in the inviolable integrity of every story he is handling.  As such, he's at pains to make sure the novel is always putting it's best foot forward.  He wants to avoid too many cliches, or if he has to use them, he's always looking to find if there are any interesting angles left unexplored and what can be done with them.  He fears repeating himself, and is always trying to be careful not to write the same book twice.

These are not the hallmarks of a prototypical literary snob.  They are instead the products of a craftsman who is so devoted to his Art that he'd prefer to commit a critical error rather than see himself become sloppy.  I suppose the result is the sort of perfectionism that produces the less than ideal.  If so, there is a difference between a good novel written badly, and a poor novel that was phoned in.  Straub is the kind of artist who can't bear to phone anything in.  If he felt he wasn't honoring the integrity of his stories, then he'd probably hang up his pen in order to take up fly-fishing, or something like that.  In his eyes, the sacrifice would be worth it if it meant the book, and hence the imagination could maintain it's honor.  The ironic punchline is that the same creative drive and principles that can sometimes produce a weak novel is also responsible for his biggest successes.

I think part of this is down to his self-awareness as an artist, and the resulting admirable drive to always look for the most creative angle in a story.  I believe that kind of thinking to be healthy in its basic insight.  There can at least be a danger in writing the same thing over again all the time.  It encourages a form of imaginative laziness in both artist and audience.  Therefore it does make a certain amount of sense to not return to the same techniques and situations time and again.  The whole crux of the matter seems to rest on an ability to know when to go off the map, and when those old tropes can sometimes be the just the thing that saves the narrative from it's own self-inflicted missteps.  Perhaps a greater challenge rests in deciding whether the reappearance of an old trope (say, a small town or community under some form of supernatural invasion or siege) amounts to telling the same story twice, or instead is a different form of inspiration with a distinctive angle of its own, like the all the potential riffs on a single musical note?  The note remains itself, yet its mode and manner of expression are unique.  All these complicated issues make a lot of great writing the result of a precarious, mental high-wire balancing act.  It's not an exact science, and hitting the target may always be more a question of luck as much as inspiration.  Besides which, there is always the possibility of old wine in new wine skins.

When he's firing on all cylinders, Straub can create a series of secondary worlds that are able to stand alongside not just the work of artists like King, but also the older masters like Poe and Mary Shelley.  Part of it might stem from his ability to read these older texts, and mine them in ways that allow him to create his own voice.

I said just a moment ago that Straub is one of the most self-aware writers in the genre.  He is also one of the most well read, or literate members of an entire modern fraternity of Gothic scribblers.  This self-aware literacy is perhaps a second key to unlock yet another enduring focus of this particular atuhor's work.  I have never come across a Horror novelist who was so curious about the nature of his chosen field than Straub.  It is possible that Stephen King fits somewhere into this same category.  However Straub is the one who in each of his novels is always trying to interrogate the genre.  He wants to know its nature.  What is the novel or story of fear and fright for?  What does it mean?  Where does it come from?  I suppose it makes sense then to view Straub as an author who is able to combine artist and critic in the same package.  King once described Straub's Shadowland as a novel that is "excavating at the very roots of the supernatural tale".  That may just wind up being the best description of Straub's literary m.o. as we're likely to get.  In that sense, maybe all of his works are "literary excavations" into the nature of the Horror genre.

The most curious and interesting part of these excavations are how Straub got there in the first place, and the results he is able to dig up and unpack.  He seems to have stumbled into the field of literary archaeology pretty much by accident.  According to Sheehan, the supernatural was an element that just started cropping up more and more in Straub's mainstream work early in his career.  Eventually it was this same Gothic element that caught his attention.  With his interest riveted on this new aspect of his work, Straub discovered that its creeping presence continued to grow and expand until it became the determining factor in the subject matter of his novels.  If there is any origin point for Straub's concerns with the nature of literary Horror, then all the evidence suggests it has to be in his early years when hints of ghosts and phantoms first entered the margins of novels like Marriages and Under Venus.  In that sense, every novel and short story Straub has written since then is both straight-forward narrative, and literary critical essay combined in one.

The results of Straub's ongoing inquiry into the nature of the genre are interesting.  For one thing, he was able trace a historical line of literary descent and influence.  Instead of looking at this as a static line of historical progression, perhaps its better to think of it more as a house with layers.  Imagine this house as one of those old Gothic manse that are almost the de facto setting of the genre.  On the top floor we have Straub and his contemporaries.  The ground floor contains those authors who were able to leave their mark on the nature and definition of Horror fiction, each in their own, individual way.  The basement level is best thought of as the taproot.  The source from which every author, Straub included, has taken inspiration, consciously or otherwise, throughout history.

On the top level there is Straub's fiction with it's concerns.  Sheehan lists these concerns as "intensely personal explorations of a number of recurring themes: the power of past events, the nature and effect of childhood traumas, the existence of the sacred, the primal power of empathy, and the interconnectedness of life and art, to name only a few (12)".  It should be noted, however, that Straub's thematic concerns would not exist if not for the giants on whose shoulders he stands.  This is something Straub is eager to acknowledge within the world of his own books.  It's no surprise then that the top level shares an intimate link with the ground floor.  And it is here that the richness of Straub's prose is to be found.  This is due to the constant back and forth dialogue that exists between the covers of each story.

"His extensive academic background gave Straub at least a nodding acquaintance with the classical roots of his newly chosen field, as exemplified by such figures as Poe, (Nathaniel Hawthorne), and (Henry James).  His initial exposure to some of the field's more recent - and arcane - practitioners came as a result of his acquaintanceship with fellow expatriate Thomas Tessier.  Tessier, a poet, playwright, and managing director of a London-based publishing house, had not yet embarked on his own career as one of the most stylish and eloquent of modern horror novelists, but he was deeply conversant with the field and spent many hours with Straub, discussing the works of older writers like Oliver Onions, Algernon Blackwood, and H.P. Lovecraft, and introducing him to the works of such contemporary figures as Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, and Fritz Leiber (46)".  It's because of informed conversational excavations such as these that Tessier was able to state that, "Peter understood the Gothic instinctively, and he made it his own with astonishing speed.  More than any author in our generation, I think, he grasped its huge range and exquisite elasticity, its very special relevance to the times in which we live (ibid)".  Still this remains just the second level of Straub's archaeology.  There remains the sub-basement.

If Straub's work is an exploration for the roots of the Horror genre, then the results he turned up can almost be considered surprising.  In a sense, he arrived not at some Old Dark House, nor an Ancient Mausoleum.  Instead, Straub's excavation set him on a path that led ultimately to a Gingerbread House, and the Forest in which it was set.  That the end point of the horror genre should turn out to be the fairy tale and the world of myth is not so shocking when you stop to give it a few moments of honest consideration.  Where do stories come from?  The simplest answer is that we all have this function in our minds called an Imagination, and it-will-not-shut-up!  Then again, maybe that's not the most unhealthy setup for our own peace of mind.  It is just possible that a functioning imagination is part of whatever blueprint there is for human sanity.

There's just one interesting thing to note if you go back and look at the historical record.  A close examination of what might be called the genealogy of narrative reveals that the first genre or class of stories that man has ever told does not fit into the easy categories of Fantasy or Horror.  Instead it has to be classified under the general terms of Myth.  At first there were simple tales of gods, whether they be the Norse Asgard, or the Grecian Olympus.  After this age of gods come stories about the exploits of men.  You start out with folk like Ulysses, from there you move on to Beowulf and from there the line descends to individuals like Hansel, Gretel, or Jack the Giant-Slayer.  I'm not sure how much thought was given to the artistic use of fear by all the early storytellers.  On the one hand, for the ancients, the use of fear was probably just one element in a greater tapestry of story.  For another thing, a lot (if not all) of the critics and professors tended to look down on the monstrous and supernatural elements of Myth for various assorted reasons.  The natural result of such prejudice is that the study of the development and utilization of narrative, or aesthetic fear, is still somewhat of a neglected science in the history of critical analysis.

The fact remains that Fairy Tale, or Myth, is still the original well out of which Horror emerged.  Finding the horrors of ancient myths and legends is the simplest thing in the world.  One of the uneraseable tropes of the fairy tale is that sooner or later the protagonist would have encounters with various assorted creatures of the fantastic.  Often times these encounters would feature the type of fantastical creatures that have since become the standards of modern fantasy: elves, dwarves, griffons, etc.  However, on occasion, there would be moments when the hero would find himself facing down goblins in an out of the way tower, or a troll hiding under a bridge, or even what were then known as revenants, or wraiths.  The work of Horror, it seems, begins the moment the storyteller focuses away from the elves cruising on distant shores, and instead zeroes in on the troll hiding under his bridge, or the wraith in its tower.  Once these tropes grow to become the major focus of the tale, we have the emergence of the genre's two main staples, the ghost and the monster.  There is at least one notable ancient author in whose work this zeroing in on the monstrous is clearly discernible.  No one has ever found out who he is, though.  So the best moniker we have to settle for is to call him The Beowulf Poet.  It is this focus on the monstrosity of the villain, and hence on a nascent element of horror, that is one of the most notable aspects of the poem.  This is something scholars like J.R.R. Tolkien picked up on well.  I don't know if Straub was treading the exact same ground as Tolkien, however there does seem to be what is best described as an interest in shared texts.

Straub explains his ideas about the relation of Horror and the fairy tale in the image of a great, all-encompassing tree, made up of both roots and branches, of which his chosen genre is just one.  "I was thinking of fairy tales as the tap-roots of the great tree of narrative, so part of what I liked - even as it sort of baffled me - in many of the Grimm Brothers' tales was what struck me as a rough, timeworn, disconnected quality, a kind of arrogant, primitive, patchwork narrative authority with no need of smooth, logical, well-motivated and well-prepared connections from part to part...These stories, I supposed, were the oldest and most genuine, the real ancestors of the kind of fiction I was trying to write.  They were like pottery shards unearthed at an archeological dig, like fragments of an ancient scroll found within an urn at the back of a cave.  They had not been smoothed out and domesticated (118)".

I do wonder if Straub isn't mistaking appearances for substance again in the quotation above.  On the other hand, it's always possible that the critic has misread the author as well.  The single reason for bringing this caveat up is the over-arching concept behind old folktales.  Far from being a disconnected patchwork, what makes these tales so fascinating, when taken together, is that they amount to a kind of compendium of how the world and the universe looked to the peasantry of older ages.  This world has at least this much going for it in that it can sometimes be more lively and animated in comparison the disenchanted style of contemporary living.  Perhaps it sounds counter-intuitive that a concept like enchantment should lie at the heart of the Horror genre.  If this is the case then I can think of no greater irony. 

Either way, Straub was later able to put his research findings to good use not just in novels like Shadowland, but also in The Talisman, his 1984 collaboration with Stephen King.  In that novel, Straub and King take the classic American idea of the Road Story and use it to transform the highways and back-roads of the North American continent into a landscape steeped here and there with the mythic settings of antiquity.  Authors like Tolkien, Sir Walter Scott, the Brother's Grimm, and Mark Twain are utilized to paint a picture of the U.S. as a place that is both new, and yet always tied in some sense to this same antiquity.  The picture painted by both authors isn't always pretty or uncritical, this is most evident in a sequence where their protagonist has to make his way through a dangerously polluted section of landscape.  However, through it all there is that same awareness of the terrain the novel is traveling.

It is just possible that this self-awareness was able to transfer to King himself, to an extent.  The latter's Wind through the Keyhole contains a narrative setup that is very similar to that of The Talisman.  Like that book, it is a combination of the fairy tale and the horrific.  However, in Keyhole all of the folklore elements of King's novel are much more upfront and present in a way that is less muted than their use in his collaboration with Straub.  King even goes so far as to incorporate elements from J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan mythos as a plot device, as well as encounters with wizards and an actual dragon.  What matters is that each book is an acknowledgement by the authors that their chosen genre has always been dependent in some fashion as much to the once upon a time of myth, as to the dark and stormy night.

After taking a close look at all these elements of Straub's writing in isolation, what do you get if we take them as they are delivered, all mixed and blended together in the author's books?  The best answer I have to such a question is that a Peter Straub novel is what you get if you took Ray Bradbury, dressed his language up a bit in a Madison Avenue suit, added a touch of classicism found in places like The Kenyon Review, and you have a very rough idea of the kind of genre-melange he likes to employ in his works.  This is not to say that Straub's work is stuffy and boring.  Far from it.  On multiple occasions Straub has shown himself capable of what Stephen King referred to as turning the thumbscrews on the reader.  The audience can often except to be confronted with situations where the author will show just how adept he is at building up a narrative tension that takes his readers by the hand and leads them all the way to the dark corner of the room where the horror awaits.  In several cases the results are more than satisfying.

Straub's settings tend to start out in the usual mundane existence we are all familiar with.  Soon, however, he will introduce a fantastical element into the proceedings that will take things into the realm of the weird.  A pair of down on their luck school kids will be offered the chance to learn the art of magic from an evil sorcerer.  A literary scholar can study the life and work of a poet he idolizes, on the condition that he lives in a house that might be haunted, or worse.  Or a group of old friends can discover that the ghost stories they tell each other are coming to frightening life.  From there his stories usually proceed in a somewhat expected fashion.  Like most modern Horror writers, Straub is not above dragging in a bucket or two of stage blood and strategically applying it to the proceedings wherever it seems to fit, or at least based on the dictates of where the story seems to be going.  Nor is he averse to sending out his actors dressed in full white bed sheet, or rubber werewolf costume, complete with zipper running down the back.  All of this is fairly standard stuff.  None of it is less than you would expect of the genre.  What makes Straub's use of these tropes interesting is the informed way he has of presenting them.

As I said above, Straub likes to wear his literacy on his sleeve.  In practice this means that his restless spirits don't just rattle their chains.  They do so in a way that forces the reader to ponder the role of the ghost in the history of literature.  The best example of Straub's practice in this regard is when a character in one of his novels flat out asks the specter who or what it is.  The wraith gives a multi-part answer: "I am a ghost", "You are a ghost", and finally, "I am you".  This answer works on both a literal and thematic level.  The spirit spells out its nature as well as its function as a piece of literature.  In doing so, Straub is holding up a mirror to human nature, and asking his readers not just to consider what ghosts are, but also what drives us to people our world with phantoms?  In other words, "What do you see when you turn out the light?  I can't tell you, but I know it's mine".  "And therefore, as a stranger, give it welcome".  These are the conditions of allusive, supernatural literacy that inform the nature of Straub's secondary worlds.  It is perhaps his greatest strength as a writer. 

Conclusion: Tradition and Straub's Individual Talent. 

In many ways, Straub is almost the prototypical product of a certain point in time for American letters.  I don't know if either the 60s or 70s count as the two decades in which cultural literacy in America reached its peak.  All I can recall is examining just a handful of snapshot moments  from other eras where it seemed like the writer, as just an inevitable fact of life, was held in something close to high regard.  Those days ended a long time ago, but while they lasted we were treated to an impressive list of names like Joyce Carole Oates, Saul Bellow,  Don Delillo, Margaret Atwood, and John Updike.  It is just possible that the author of Ghost Story deserves a spot on that list.

As an artist, Straub both descends from, and is a part of, this tradition of high literacy.  At the same time, he was and very much is, still today, a man with his foot in two camps.  On the one hand, there is what might be called the New Yorker style of reading and writing made famous by the likes of John Gardner.  A lot of Straub's work seems to fit well within this literary paradigm.  This is evident in the skill and intertextual sophistication that the author uses to construct the edifice of his novels.  On the other hand he seems to have a natural affinity for the popular Horror genre.      

The key fact about Straub seems to be that he is one of the most literate artists toiling in the Gothic bullpen.  He's the kind of guy who might still be aware of storytellers like Ring Lardner, Robert Benchley, or James Thurber and E.B. White.  Those guys represented a particular brand of narrative style that was interesting in that they somehow managed to mix sophistication with popular taste.  The best example might be Thurber's 13 Clocks.  However a better story that could arguably be closer to Straub's wheelhouse is "A Friend to Alexander".  This neat and compact short-story leaves the audience wondering if it is possible that events from the past (specifically the fatal duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr) are capable of interrupting and shaping the present in less than natural ways.  To this extent, as well as maybe a few others, Straub seems to be very much in line with that whole company of authors.  I once remember saying how it often looked like he was writing as if an editor from The New Yorker was always looking over his shoulder.  This can be good or bad depending on the circumstances.  However, he can still hit the target with this approach, and when he does score a hit, it's usually a good one.

It makes sense then, from this perspective, to view Straub as part of this number of authors whose greatest moment of cultural activity stems from around the 70s and 80s.  However, if Straub belongs to two camps, then his writing serves as an interesting link between the literate ethos of what might be called late stage Modernism, and that of another class of writers.  I have said elsewhere that this second assortment of authors can be looked at as something like an informal literary group.  It's perhaps a mistake to think of them as anything like an official club.  When viewed as an informal collective, however, then it is just possible to see a literary phenomenon starting to emerge at that same time.  Straub himself has devised a name for this group that might provide us with a de facto critical term for all of them.  The phrase Straub came up with is the New Wave Fabulists.  This term makes its debut in issue 39 of the literary magazine Conjunctions.

We'll get to Straub's article for that issue in a minute.  First the question of definition has to be established.  Right now the closest I've got to a definition for this movement in literature comes from novelist Paula Cappa.  She frames the definition in terms of a question.  "What is this new “fabulist fiction” everybody is talking about? There is a wave of fabulist fiction going on.  As a reader you might think it’s a blend of magical realism/fantasy/supernatural stories. Fabulist fiction seems to blur these boundaries with fantastic events in realistic settings, flavored with exotic themes and blends of folklore or mythology.  In the milieu of fabulism, anything can happen–the unreal, the surreal, the unexplained. Some readers call it slipstream or the new weird, or what is most popular “the modern fable.”  As far as definitions go it's best place to start that I can find.  The rest of Ms. Cappa's article on the genre can be found here.

Returning to that Conjunctions article, Straub gives this Fabulism and its practitioners a brief historical context.  "It would be easy but misleading to account for this in evolutionary terms. That is, it is not really accurate to say that over the past two decades the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror have been, unnoticed by the wider literary culture, transforming themselves generation by generation and through the work of each generation’s most adventurous practitioners into something all but unrecognizable, hence barely classifiable at all except as literature. Even evolution doesn’t work that way. The above process did take place, and it was completely overlooked by the wider literary culture but it did not happen smoothly, and the kind of post-transformation fictions represented here owe more than half of their DNA and much of their underlying musculature to their original genre sources. Contemporary, more faithful versions of those sources are to be found all over the place, especially in movie theaters and the genre shelves at Barnes & Noble. Gene Wolfe, who is necessary to this volume, was producing fiction of immense, Nabokovian rigor and complexity thirty years ago, alongside plenty of colleagues who were satisfied to work within the genre’s familiar templates. Now, writers like Nalo Hopkinson, John Kessell, and Patrick O’Leary, for all of whom Gene Wolfe is likely to be what Gary K. Wolf calls a “touchstone,” are still publishing shorter fiction in magazines like Asimov’s and Fantasy and Science Fiction, and so is Kelly Link. (Jonathan Carroll, Jonathan Lethem, Elizabeth Hand, John Crowley, and China Miéville seldom write short fiction, and we are are fortunate to have stories from them.) Strictly on grounds of artistic achievement, these writers should all along have been welcome in thoughtful literary outlets (web)".

Further context is provided in Straub's introduction to his edited anthology, Poe's Children.  "Each of these writers either came through to the recognition, or were permitted by a generous environment early on to understand, that the materials of a genre - specifically the paired genres of horror and the fantastic - in no way require the constrictions of formulaic treatment, and in fact naturally extend and evolves into the methods and concerns of its wider context, general literature (vii)".  This sentiment is echoed by fellow writer Ken Keegan: "At present, there are basically three major categories of fiction: genre fiction, literary fiction, and a third type which has had no commonly accepted name. This third type has cultural meaning and artistic value, which means it does not fit well into the escapist formula genres, yet it also has non-realistic elements and settings which exclude it from the category of literary fiction. We knew from the start that we wanted to publish this third type of fiction, but what would we call it (web)"?  New Wave Fabulism seems to be the answer that everyone is willing to settle for.

Keegan takes things a bit further by asserting, "There is a long and illustrious tradition of serious works that can be defined as Fabulist Fiction. Some of the most important include:  Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, Tristam Shandy, Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, Alice in Wonderland, Gershenzon and Ivanov’s Correspondence from Two Corners, Kafka’s The Castle, Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Woolf’s The Waves, Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John, Gombowicz’s Ferdydurke, and Calvino’s Invisible Cities (ibid)".  This idea is echoed by Paula Cappa, who adds the following to Keegan's list.  "Examples? Traditionally, we could think  Alice in Wonderland— yeah, that would fit fabulism. Kafka’s Metamorphosis where the narrator is transformed into a beetle.  Author Italo Calvino was known as the contemporary “fabulist” for his dazzling allegorical stories. Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a mix of history, fable, and fantasy (ibid)". 

As best I can tell, it seems like what we've got with New Wave Fabulism is really just a resurgence of an idea that perhaps amounts to the same creative impulse that inspired and instigated the Romantic Movement.  The only minor difference this time is the name that artists have chosen to describe themselves.  I can't help noticing an irony at the heart of the movement.  All these writers, Straub, included, find themselves having to defend their choice of working in the three major branches of popular genre fiction.  This is a point Straub highlights in Poe's Children "...most professional reviewers of fiction instinctively tend to protect the categories that simplify their tasks.  Therefore, when faced with work that, while indisputably though perhaps even in some not-quite-definable sense connected to a genre like SF or Horror, also possess literary merit, they tend to fall back on the convenient old shell game of expressing their admiration by saying that the work in question transcends its genre (ibid)".

The almost unspoken subtext here is a battle for the popular genres to achieve some level of critical respectability.  In many ways it's sort of disappointing to learn that such literary prejudices are still something of an issue.  This is all the more troubling now that popular fandom itself seems to be near some sort of tipping, or implosion point.  Part of the problem is that the critics unwillingness, or inability to give the popular genres the credit they deserve has led some of their practitioners to adopt a new term for their approach.  It's an issue that deserves further comment.  For now, however, it will have to be settled for saying that the lack of critical recognition for genre fiction may stem from beliefs that are a lot more problematic than most realize.

I don't think this subtracts from a lot of the insights Straub brings to the table.  By declaring himself a New Wave Fantasist, Straub has done readers the double favor of helping the uninitiated to understand not just the nature of his own work, but also that of his contemporaries and collaborators, such as King, Neil Gaiman, and Alan Moore.  Like them, Straub is a fantasist who has found a voice that enables them to make the old tropes of myth and fable new again for the modern world.  In this regard, it's easy to place Straub as another branch in the Great Tree of Romatnic Tradition.  Sheehan refers to it as the Story Tree.  It's the prime metaphor of his book-length study of the work of one of the somewhat critically neglected authors of 20th century Gothic fiction.  That's a real shame, because guys like Peter Straub are able to spin a yarn in ways that can make you think, if you are willing pay attention and listen close to what he has to say.  Perhaps Ghost Story is still the best place to start familiarizing yourself with the author.  Other than that, Bill Sheehan's At the Foot of the Story Tree is the closest thing to an essential resource as we are ever likely to get.

4 comments:

  1. (1) "Sheehan is also a big help in that his book might bring a greater awareness to a talent could be in danger of falling off the map." -- I would imagine that Straub's name is going to be at least semi-known for decades to come based purely on the association with King. He deserves to be known for his own name rather than someone else's, of course, and Sheehan's book can't hurt. Certainly it's a valuable resource for anyone who develops a deep interest in Straub.

    (2) "a modest, rather tentative mainstream novel (Marriages)" -- I've read that! It's not particularly good; so I thought, at least. His second novel, "Under Venus" (which was also non-genre literature and which would not be published until the mid-eighties), is considerably better, though not without its own weaknesses.

    (3) Notable that both Straub and King nearly died by being struck by vehicles. King much later in life than Straub, granted; but still, that's a spooky thing to share.

    (4) If I may be critical, I have to ask -- is all of this context necessary? If your intent is to introduce people to Straub, then surely all this is vastly overreaching. Interesting for someone like me, who *does* want to engage with Straub at that deeper level. But, as fascinating as some of this is, I think maybe you've strayed from your thesis quite wildly here.

    (5) "Straub's trouble in all these instances is that in trying to be clever with the structure or narratological choices of his novels, the results can sometimes wind up as clever-by-half." -- I've yet to read many of the Straub works which are said to be guiltiest of this sin, but I can vouch that at least several of the ones I have read do indeed possess this flaw. Although, to be honest, I didn't take most of them as actual flaws. They *are*, they just didn't strike me that way; which is a borderline nonsensical thing to say, I know. Maybe not even borderline!

    (6) I'd like to reread "If You Could See Me Now" with your thoughts about it in mind. It's a novel which is well worth revisiting, and someday I will do just that.

    (7) Ditto "Koko," which I found to be a little frustrating but mostly riveting. I still don't know for sure whether I think anything supernatural was going on there. I guess maybe something *must* have been, but can't say for sure. In that way, the novel is a bit like actual life, where I'm fairly sure supernatural things must be happening all around me, but can find no tangible evidence of it. Was any of that on Straub's mind? Beats me! But it was on my mind as I read the novel, so there's that.

    (8) "It would be easy to write off these fumblings as the outcome of an author who is a bit too caught up in his own pretensions." -- I'd forgive most readers who wrote Straub off in precisely that manner. I don't, if only because I think the strengths outweigh the weaknesses by a wide margin. They don't invalidate them, but they do mitigate them, at least for me.

    (9) "There can at least be a danger in writing the same thing over again all the time. It encourages a form of imaginative laziness in both artist and audience. Therefore it does make a certain amount of sense to not return to the same techniques and situations time and again." -- Straub's fascination with jazz is interesting from this standpoint. Jazz as a medium is at least partially concerned with going back to the same idea over and over, but as a means of finding new ways to express old ideas.

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    1. (3) You know what, that was something I honestly didn't fit together in my head until you mentioned it. When looked at from that perspective, yeesh, that's kinda creepy.

      (4) I'd argue that all the context talk is necessary based on the critical approach I'm taking in pretty much I've written or plan to write. The logic I'm operating on isn't my own. It came from something I was able to take away from two source. The main one is the idea of Cultural Literacy. It comes from an old educator named E.D. Hirshc Jr.

      His idea was that it's impossible to have an accurate grasp on any given subject matter unless you know the historical and cultural context that more or less helped create it. In other words, you can't understand the Beatles, or Martin Luther, without understanding either the Civil Rights Movement, the Beat Generation that the band emerged from, and the 60s historical context in which both of the band and the man left their mark.

      The second source was from an old T.S. Eliot essay labeled "Tradition and the Individual Talent". It's one of those Big Idea works, and I'll sometimes it's hard to understand just what the hell he's saying (I've read other complaints about his poetry). I know I can't say I agree with some of his ideas, however one thing I was able to takeaway from that essay was that every artist is inspired in part by an artistic milieu of which the individual talent forms just one component in a greater whole.

      Perhaps an alternate word for tradition might be the established system of generic tropes in art. A lot of modern Horror is the outgrowth of tropes that were set down long ago by guys like Poe, who, in turn, got them from guys like Shelley, and Coleridge.

      I just think noting all this down is important, because its apparent that Straub has admitted to being inspired by these same guys, so I just feel I'm not giving a complete picture of author's identity if I don't bring all this up. My stated goal was to introduce readers to Straub and his work. In introducing his work, that always meant, for me at least, focusing in on the nuts and bolts that form the compost out of which it's all made. To me, that always had to include both historical and cultural context. It's a maxim that I've believed applies to all artistis for some time now.

      (5)(6)(7)(8) I can't think of much to add to what you've said here, except to say that the idea of extraordinary things happening just out of sight seems to be a universal idea of some sort. Pretty interesting, gotta to admit that.

      (9) That idea that Straub's writing methods might share similarities with the performance of Jazz riffs might just be on the nose. The trouble is I've never been good music theory. Words and style are a better strong point. Still, I think that observation is valid. One of these days I might just have to knuckle down and see if I can wrap my mind around the topic.

      ChrisC

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    2. (4) After giving it some further thought, if you're complaint was that the focus was more on the background material and less on the stories themselves, then even that was deliberate. Allow me to explain the method in the madness.

      One of the goals I started this whole thing with is to try and provide a starter's manual for all things artistic. My basic basic viewpoint is that I had to gear my writing toward a majority of people who may not have read certain authors, or be familiar with certain older films. With that viewpoint in mind, I realized that a lot of what I write would have to be introductory. It all had to be one big beginner's reading course.

      That's another reason for a focus on the context. In addition to this, however, my thinking was that I should provide a general overview of certain authors and artists first as a way of familiarizing them with readers, then, once first introductions have been established, the next move would be to examine whichever of their works seemed worthy of comment and examination as I went along. For instance, the next time I talk about Straub, I'll be focusing in on "Ghost Story", and I'll probably use Sheehan's study to help with my commentary on it. I haven't gone this same route with artists like King or Disney, because at the moment their name recognition is everywhere.

      As for Sheehan's book in itself, like I said, this was less of a review, and more of an introductory course, with Sheehan's text providing a jumping off point.

      With all that said, I suppose it can be an open question of whether this is the right approach. Maybe I'm holding the audience's hand too much? Even that's the case, I can't think of another way to help get readers oriented is the problem.

      ChrisC

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