A rustle, a creak, a squeak: the door to the attic is unlocked, and something is moving around on the other side. It may be a mouse. It may be a phantasm. It may just be a posthypnotic suggestion. Whatever the case, do you go in to see what it is, or do you lock the door and run downstairs.
It’s in the nature of a good scary story for the door to open, leading onto the territory in which Peter Straub has worked for four decades, ever since he burst upon the scene in the late 1970s with the aptly named Ghost Story. That novel earned critical and commercial attention and became a hit 1981 movie, with Fred Astaire in the unlikely role of a fellow who’s done something very, very bad indeed.
“We have to go into the attic,” Straub says. “Otherwise we’ll miss a lot. We’re always surrounded by people who say not to, people who want to protect us from experiences that might allow us to grow—and those are the people we have to get away from in order to know the world.”
Never mind that going into the attic might kill us. Or at the very least scare us silly.
Since his debut, Straub has been busily writing and publishing work that is usually categorized in the horror vein, even though it does not have much in common with the slasher and vampire books that dominate the genre. His new collection Interior Darkness, for instance, gathers 16 long stories from the last 25 years, full of violence and terror that are mostly implied rather than stated. Most proceed, he says, “from a kind of psychological pressure. They are present. They’re internal, and they go to places that I don’t know and don’t understand. The kind of story I want to write is darker, more troubled, and less resolved than most of the short stories you’ll read—but maybe, also, more playful.
“Anyone reading Interior Darkness,” he continues, “will see, I hope, that there’s more going on than just trying to invert expectations. I’m interested in something more exploratory, something that is rooted in and proceeds from the narrative itself. It’s all about storytelling, and that’s where my own stories find their home.” That much is evident, and the stories in Interior Darkness do indeed subvert and surprise even while placing us in some uncanny situations that provide a close-up look at what Straub calls his “intimate knowledge of the mechanics of fear.”
Affable and good-natured for all the mayhem he wreaks on the page, Straub cheerily traces his writerly kinship to the likes of H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. But he’s always had a more resolutely literary side, his sensibility rooted in Henry James and Charles Dickens as much as any horror writer. “John Le Carré, too,” he adds. “It may not seem obvious, but Ghost Story was completely influenced by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, in Le Carré’s love for structural complexity. The Shining is great, but I got completely high reading Le Carré’s book when it first came out, and I wanted to do something just as good.”
Having just relocated from an endlessly spacious five-story brownstone to a small apartment, an exercise in downsizing, Straub is a little worn-out. “We had 35 years worth of things to move,” he says. “We now have a fantastic view of the Manhattan skyline, but not a lot of room.” Still, his library and office in place, he’s eager to get back to work adding to his stock of scary stories.
The new place, of course, has an attic.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.