Peter Straub, whose literary novels of horror, mystery and the supernatural placed him at the top of the horror charts in the 1970s and ’80s, died along with writers such as Ira Levine and Anne Rice and his close friend and collaborator Stephen King. Sunday in Manhattan. He was 79 years old.
His wife, Susan Straub, said his death at Columbia University Irving Medical Center resulted from complications after a hip fracture.
Mr. Straub was a master of this genre and a concerned operator. Novels such as “Julia” (1975) and “Ghost Story” (1979) helped revive a field that was groaning under the brunt, despite insisting that his work crossed ratings and that he wrote the way he wanted, only to watch readers and critics classify him as a horror novelist.
Not that he can complain about what critics and readers think. Beginning with his third novel “Julia,” which is about a woman haunted by a spirit whose dead daughter may or may not be, Mr. Straub has won praise from reviewers and topped bestseller lists with the kind of stories that were once a literary sub-margin.
“He was a unique writer in many ways,” King said in a phone interview Monday. He was not only a literary writer with a poetic sensibility, but also well-read. And that was a wonderful thing. He was a modern writer, equal to Philip Roth, though he wrote about wonderful things.”
Mr. Straub, who faced the darkness of his scripts with a racy personality and a racy wardrobe of flashy shirts and ties, took on the horror novels in time. Beginning with Mr. Levine’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) and William Peter Blatty’s “Exorcist” (1971), the genre has become mainstream. Mr. King’s first novel, “Carrie”, appeared in 1974, a year before “Julia”; Ms. Rice’s debut titled “Interview with the Vampire” appeared in 1976.
A fan of Henry James and John Ashbery—he published several books of poetry before he turned to novels—Mr. Straub had not originally aspired to write about metaphysics; In fact, it wasn’t until after two other classic novels went bankrupt.
“‘Julia’ was a novel that involved what turned out to be a ghost, so it was a horror novel,” he told The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 1996. “I didn’t know much about the field at the time. I just wanted to write a novel that would make money so I wouldn’t have to get Job. With the first sentence, I felt such a huge relief. I felt like I was right at home.”
Julia actually made a profit, as did his next two novels, If You Could See Me Now (1977) and A Ghost Tale, which are New York Times bestsellers. Both “Julia” and “Ghost Story” have been adapted for films, the former as “Full Circle” in 1977, starring Mia Farrow, and the latter, in 1981, starring Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and John Houseman.
Like James and Edgar Allan Poe, one of his other influences, Mr. Straub kept the supernatural dim, implied but not always recognizable, and if only at the end of the story, when frightening uncertainty brought suspense to a boil.
“I wanted to take this kind and pull it up a little bit,” He told The Times, In 1979 about writing “A Ghost Story”. “Don’t completely outgrow this type, but make a little more material than I’ve been made of in the recent past.”
By then, he was a friend of Mr. King, who had agreed to write a blurb for “Ghost Story” after reading an advance, unbound copy.
“We got it from the post office,” Mr. King recalls. “It was all kind of split open. And so I was driving and my wife opened it up and started reading it to me. By the time we got home, we were really excited, because we knew this was kind of a masterpiece.”
It was Mr. Straub who suggested, in the early 1980s, that he and Mr. King collaborate to write a novel – on modem-linked computers and dot-matrix printers, the latest technology at the time. Mr. King, then a best-selling author, said yes at once, mostly out of admiration for his friend’s literary strengths.
“He was a better writer, more literary than me,” he said.
Their collaboration, “The Talisman” (1984), was a huge success. It tells the story of 12-year-old Jack Sawyer, who ventures into an alternate world to save his cancer-stricken mother. Comments were mixedbut sales weren’t: The book spent 12 weeks at the top of the Times bestseller list.
Mr. King and Mr. Straub met again in 2001 to write a sequel, “The Black House,” which picks up with Jack Sawyer as an adult. It also sold very well. They were discussing a third book, but it was still in its infancy upon Mr. Straub’s death.
Peter Frances Straub was born on March 2, 1943 in Milwaukee to Gordon Straub, a traveling salesman, and Elvina (Nielstoen) Straub, a registered nurse.
When he was seven years old, he was hit by a car and nearly killed. He had to learn to walk again, and the experience left him with an obvious stutter that overcame but never completely conquered, so that later in adulthood, he would creep again whenever he got excited.
Mr. Straub studied English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he lived across the street from future rock star Steve Miller. He graduated in 1965. He received his master’s degree from Columbia University, also in English, and a year later he returned to Milwaukee, where he taught English at a private school. He married Susan Petker in 1966.
With his wife, he is survived by his novelist daughter Emma Straub; his son Benjamin who works in a production company representing his father’s film interests; John’s brother. and three grandchildren.
Straub moved to Ireland in 1969 so that Mr. Straub could pursue a Ph.D. in English at University College Dublin, but instead of finishing his thesis (originally on DH Lawrence, later turned into a dissertation on the Bronte sisters), he wrote his first novel.
In Lark he submitted “Marriages” to a London publisher who immediately accepted it. He was not pleased with the quality, and was happier with a short series of books of poetry that he had published with a small British printing press. However, neither prose nor poetry made him much money, and in his desperation he resorted to writing about the supernatural instead.
He and his wife moved to London in 1972, and then to the New York area in 1979. They lived in Brooklyn upon his death.
Although not as prolific as Mr. King, Mr. Straub went on to write bestsellers, not all of which involved horror. The “Blue Rose” trilogy – “Coco” (1988), “Mystery” (1990) and “Throat” (1993) – revolves around the pursuit of a serial killer. Although there is nothing supernatural about them, each book has won the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Prize, three of the seven Stoker Awards collected by Mr. Straub.
If he hated embracing the horror sign wholeheartedly, he was held in high esteem for her ability to bring out often unspoken fears and unacknowledged tragedies in real life.
“I like her recognition that life is an elusive and uncertain business, and that the grinning-faced monster may live or work right next door to you,” Mr. Straub told Publishers Weekly in 2016. The certainty of grief, which deepens us and opens us to other people who have been there as well.”
“Hipster-friendly explorer. Award-winning coffee fanatic. Analyst. Problem solver. Troublemaker.”