Peter Straub is a legendary writer of horror, and has been publishing novels and short stories for decades. Those that have followed him everywhere and sought every new thing he has written won’t find much joy here. This new collection draws on earlier collections. So for fans of Stephen King looking to add a second horror writer to their favorites list, this book is a winner, and it is for this new generation of horror readers that I mark this collection 4 stars. For die-hard Straub fans like me that are looking for stories that haven’t been published before, it may be a disappointment. I read my copy free courtesy of Net Galley and Doubleday in exchange for an honest review.
The first story, Blue Rose, is one of the most chilling, most terribly great stories Straub has ever written. This is probably why once I was partway into it, I suddenly remembered the middle and ending exactly after all these years, with over a thousand works of fiction read between then and now. I also suspect this story may have been featured in multiple collections, although I don’t know it for a fact. Likewise, the stories featured from his Houses Without Doors collection were all stories I remembered having read more recently.
However, I found three stories that had been published earlier in Magic Terror that had somehow slipped my attention. In particular, “Porkpie Hat” and “Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff” are well done. I became a Straub fan before I finished college, and also before I was a literature teacher. It is great fun to go back and look at all the miraculous ways he uses imagery and other devices in these two stories to build dread in the reader and connect us in a nearly-visceral way to his protagonists. There is only one story in this collection that pushes my ick button—that part of my gut that turns over when something goes from being sick in an entertaining way to being sick in a way that makes me really feel sick and regretful at what I’d read; this is “The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine”, originally published as a novella.
One sad thing in coming back to Straub’s work with more depth of knowledge than I had when I first read it is that I see a problem I didn’t notice before. Straub cannot develop female characters, and falls prey to every stereotype imaginable. There is one story in the “Noir” section where he deliberately uses stereotypes tongue in cheek, but this apparently hasn’t caused him to notice that he practices many of the same habits in the rest of his prose. It is this failure that denies him the fifth star in my rating.
Horror writers love to use kiddies, and Straub is no exception. If you cannot bear to read stories in which fictional children are subjected to cruelties in order to move the story forward, don’t read this book. In fact, if that’s the case for you, this may not even be your genre. Sometimes Straub rescues the kid at the end of the story, but then again, sometimes he doesn’t. And sometimes, it’s gruesome. I would not have cared to read these tales when I was pregnant or raising young children; I was way too close to his fictional characters at that time in my life. I mention this in case it’s true for you right now.
Conservative Christians won’t like this book.
Most of these stories were written for the book buying public of the late twentieth century, the majority of which was Caucasian and perhaps more clueless than most white folks are today. I could not help but notice that none of his scary characters had blue eyes. However, there’s one nicely done story involving allegory as well as wry humor titled “Little Red’s Tango”. In this story a Japanese book buyer turns up and stays awhile; Straub avoided every stereotype and the character was both believable and respectfully drawn. I appreciated it.
Between what I have said here and the table of contents that you can find online, you should know now whether this collection is in your wheelhouse and whether it’s something you want to pursue. It is available for purchase now.