Peter Straub, an author who helped usher in our decades-long fascination with horror fiction, had a way of weaving macabre and heart-wrenching prose into one sentence. Even stories about ghostly hauntings, sinister parallel universes or grisly murders could feel mournful, sensitive and cathartic in Straub’s hands.
From his seminal 1979 novel, “Ghost Story”: “Nobody can protect anybody else from vileness. Or from pain. All you can do is not let it break you in half and keep on going until you get to the other side.”
An influence and friend to authors like Stephen King, Joe Hill, Neil Gaiman and many more, Straub left an indelible mark on the world of horror and fantasy fiction, helping to elevate it from disregarded pulp to a genre of consequence and depth.
Straub turned childhood trauma into a celebrated horror career
Born in Wisconsin, Straub’s childhood was shattered by a traumatic event in the first grade: He was hit by a car (referred to as a “classic near-death experience” on his website), an incident that left him with nightmares for nearly three decades of his life — until, that is, he started writing horror fiction.
“I was way less a child than I had been beforehand,” he said of the accident in a 2016 interview with Salon. “Once I did understand the consequences then I was far more able to deal with them. It meant also that I had that material available for conscious thematic use.”
After releasing two novels to little fanfare, Straub made his first foray into the supernatural with 1975’s “Julia,” which follows a grieving woman haunted by the specter of a child that may or may not be her own. His breakthrough, though, came with “Ghost Story,” a tale of four elderly men who trade ghost stories until they suspect they’re being haunted themselves. Both of those books were later adapted into films.
“Ghost Story” earned Straub a lifelong admirer — and occasional collaborator — in King, who by then had published books like “Carrie” and “The Shining.” (Their output helped cement genre fiction as a legitimate artform.) The two collaborated on the fantasy epic “The Talisman” in 1984, which followed a boy attempting to save his mother’s life while navigating a dangerous parallel universe, and again for its 2001 sequel.
King, reacting to news of Straub’s death, called their collaborations “one of the great joys of (his) creative life.”
Straub used his writing not only as a vessel for his childhood trauma but as a means to explore the more painful elements of being alive. In his work, he explored childhood bullying, losing a family member, abuse and suicide, among other themes.
“There’s a lot of stuff that I think people in general prefer to back away from that I simply cannot back away from, temperamentally, because I don’t think we have the whole world in mind or in view unless we also include these things,” he told Salon. “Those kinds of things are of immense importance in allowing us to see what’s going on around us in the proper way.”
Straub continued to write throughout his life, from 1988’s Vietnam War-inspired “Koko” to the 2016 short story collection “Interior Darkness.” He resisted labeling his oeuvre as exclusively horror — there were elements of the macabre and supernatural, yes, but he found them to be as complex as life is: “Honest to God, to me all those stories seem to be accurate representations of real life,” he wrote on his website.
Straub was beloved by fellow authors
Outside of horror, Straub had a thriving personal life: He met his wife, Susan, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison after saving her from a rogue bee, and the two bibliophiles immediately connected. Susan Straub established the long-running “Read to Me” literacy program, which encouraged mothers to read to their young children. The pair had two children themselves, Ben and Emma.
Straub was a lifelong lover of and expert in jazz music — under the “Peter Straub Recommends” section of his website, many of the albums he lists are jazz. (The admiration between musicians and Straub was mutual: the indie legend Nick Cave took inspiration from Straub’s work for several songs.) He also briefly moonlighted as a soap opera actor, appearing on several episodes of “One Life to Live” as a former police detective.
His daughter recently published “This Time Tomorrow,” fiction loosely inspired by months she spent visiting Straub in 2020 when he was hospitalized for heart problems. In her book, a woman visiting her ailing father in the hospital suddenly travels back in time to her 16th birthday and re-meets the younger, spry version of her father.
“That book, and our mutual understanding, meant that when he died, I didn’t doubt for a second that he knew how grateful I was to be his, and vice versa,” Emma Straub wrote on Twitter following her father’s death.
Fellow horror writers remembered Peter Straub as a a friend as kind as he was talented: Joe Hill, author and King’s son, called him “the most incredibly lovely man to children” and a “great f*****g writer.” Neil Gaiman praised his writing, too, and recalled a time Straub, one of “the best friends (he’s) ever known,” performed the difficult crow yoga pose in a Wisconsin men’s restroom “because he was fearless & proud of his yoga.”
Straub shared profound thoughts about loss and grief through the lens of horror fiction in a 2016 interview with Publisher’s Weekly.
“Loss befalls us all; loss is half the human story,” he told the publication. “Mostly, we experience moments of joy and transcendence a couple of seconds after they have already begun to fade, and our knowledge of such exalted states consists largely of their existence being held in memory. Adult human beings live with the certainty of grief, which deepens us and opens us to other people, who have been there, too.”