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Peter Straub On Writing MR. X
Double your pleasure, double your fun.
By Denise Dumars
November 09, 1999
'I'd wanted to write a doppelganger novel for some time,' Peter Straub says of his new novel, MR. X. 'I tried it once before, in the book that eventually became MYSTERY. But I got more interested in the character of the old detective in the story than I did in my original idea of the two brothers,' he says of his 1990 novel. MR. X is a novel that deals with the subject of a doppelganger--a person's double--in a storyline that introduces us to a family that possesses strange powers.
Asked about other novels that deal with similar subject matter, like Thomas Tryon's THE OTHER and Stephen King's THE DARK HALF. 'I was more influenced by Wilkie Collins, and Daphne DuMaurier's THE GLASS BLOWERS. I like the way in which they dealt with the idea of the double.' He adds, 'I'm fascinated by that concept. In the mythology, when you see your doppelganger, that usually means you're going to die,' he explains. 'The double wants what you want--your life, and everything in it.'
All of this puts protagonist Ned Dunstan in a precarious position. In MR. X, Ned has something to fear from both his twin brother, Robert, and his homicidally insane father, Edward Rinehart. Rinehart doesn't know he's a Dunstan, nor does he realize the powers that Dunstan family members inherit. He is, instead, the victim of a cruel game played by his own father, a man who decides to drive his own son crazy and lead him to believe that the source of his power is none other than the Great Old Ones and Elder Gods in the writings of H. P. Lovecraft.
'I always liked old H. P.,' Straub says of the author, whose tales of ancient extraterrestrials inhabiting Earth in the dim past have influenced numerous horror writers. 'I read a good deal of his work, read [S. T.] Joshi's biography of him and was touched by it. I really feel that Lovecraft did the best he could with what he had, considering how he grew up and the fact that he was self-educated.'
The name of Rinehart's father, Howard, evokes the famous Providence native as well, but 'I didn't do that on purpose,' Straub claims, laughing. 'In fact, my French translator on the book mentioned to me that the name of the character of Minor Keyes is a musical joke. I hadn't done that on purpose, either!'
Ned proceeds to educate himself as to his heritage and his strange family. Robert, on the other hand, is his shadow, a man who is, as Straub describes him, 'all Id' and who 'has no Superego'. Straub ads, 'Like all people of that sort, he is controlled by his anger. This makes him very dangerous indeed-almost as dangerous as Rinehart, who is determined to kill his son Ned.'
Although it contains much supernatural imagery and not a few gruesome murders, MR.X reads more like a literary novel than a horror novel. But when asked if he considers himself a horror writer, Straub replied in the affirmative. 'I really am a horror writer. It's how I made my name, and it's how people think of me. By now I've adjusted to it and I don't mind at all. If there is a horror genre, it's a very interesting field, since it's not defined by content, but rather by feeling and imagery,' he says, echoing Douglas Winter's assertion that horror is not a genre in and of itself but rather a description of a feeling evoked in many novels, including those not labeled 'horror.'
Straub also addresses the slump in horror book publication and sales that occurred in the late 1980s and is only now beginning its recovery. 'I think horror's been percolating right along, despite everything. In the '80s bad books came out, and people weren't buying those formulaic novels. But they kept on buying Rice, King, Koontz, and Barker.' Straub remains an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and will be a Guest of Honor at the World Horror Convention in Denver in May, 2000.
His next published work will be a collection of novellas and stories. Its tentative title is MAGIC & TERROR. 'However,' he says, 'I've been toying with the idea of changing the title to GOODNIGHT, AIR. It's a line from the children's book GOODNIGHT, MOON. I think it's a wonderfully evocative line.' All of the work in the collection will horrific except for one story, a suspense tale about an aging hit man, titled 'Isn't it Romantic?'.
While many fledgling writers belong to writers' groups, it may surprise the reader to know that a widely published author like Straub does as well. 'I belong to the Adams Roundtable, a group of mystery writers that meets once a month to discuss writing. I wrote 'Isn't it Romantic?' for one of their anthologies,' he explains. 'It's a great group, founded by Mary Higgins Clark. Many fine writers are in it, including Lawrence Block and Susan Isaacs.'
He goes on to say that--appropriately enough, perhapsthere are usually 13 members in the group. 'When one drops out, we look around for another,' he says. When informed that thirteen members make a coven, Straub is taken aback. 'Oh! Don't say that to Mary Higgins Clark!' he warns.
Straub's novel GHOST STORY was made into a film in 1981, starring such venerable actors as Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, John Houseman, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. 'A jazz musician friend of mine called it a 'jump-out' movie,' says Straub. 'It had a great cast,' he says, but admits that the film disappointed him a bit. Straub has other novels under option to Hollywood, including KOKO and SHADOWLANDS; unfortunately, the people who optioned them have 'more zeal than money,' he says. The long-awaited film version of THE TALISMAN, the collaboration between Straub and Stephen King, may finally see production--on the small screen. 'Steven Spielberg and Catherine Kennedy have it, and it will most likely be done as a miniseries on ABC,' Straub says.
When asked if he would ever collaborate on a novel again, he says he'd do so in a hot minute. 'With Stephen King, that is,' he states by way of clarification. 'He's the perfect collaborator--he's such a tactful guy, so sympathetic.'
Straub now finds himself in the enviable category of writers like King who have books written about them. Book reviewer and essayist Bill Sheehan has written AT THE FOOT OF THE STORY TREE: THE FICTION OF PETER STRAUB, which will be published in May 2000 by Subterranean Press and will debut at the World Horror Convention. 'It's is a book-by-book and story-by-story look at Peter's entire career, from his first mainstream novel, MARRIAGES, through MR. X. I wrote a 7,000 word chapter on MR. X,' says Sheehan.
Sheehan goes on to say that 'People who pass up Peter's books are missing one of the great, complex pleasures of modern popular fiction. To me, Peter's work represents the ideal combination: stories which are extremely literate and beautifully composed, but which still retain the narrative hooks and traditional pleasures of the various genres--horror, mystery--suspense--that he has worked in during the course of his career.'
And that's about as good a summary of Straub's appeal as a writer as one will ever find. Straub's novels, while containing plenty of 'jump-out' thrills, are also meaty, complex stories of the human condition. A reader really couldn't ask for more in--dare I say it--a horror novel.