This year we lost a renowned horror author. R.I.P. Peter Straub. He left us on Sept 4, 2022. Not only did he pass away on my wedding anniversary but we share the same birthday – March 2. Does this mean we are cosmically linked in some way? Most likely not. I don’t put too much credence in cosmic/spiritual mumbo jumbo. I do like to read and write about it, that’s for sure, but I see it for what it is – fiction, not fact. Straub certainly has left the world some compelling fiction, that’s for sure. And like any author, he also left us some fiction that is in the upper realms of the “OK” rating scale. This is where Lost Boy, Lost Girl sits at. Is there an OK + grade? There is now.
I suppose his most celebrated works are Ghost Story and The Talisman, with the latter being co-authored by Stephen King. I read the former, loved it; haven’t attempted the latter. My review of Ghost Story is not without some minor criticism. In the review, I suggest:
At times during my reading, I found myself lost in the tangled trails of plot. Yes, these trails do untangle and eventually lead you where you want to go, but still, it was a tedious experience at times.
I wrote this review in 2016 – six years ago. What I said remains true. However, there is something about Ghost Story that has stuck with me all this time. I’m not good at remembering the details of a story I read some time ago, including its characters (especially not their names.) Likewise with Ghost Story. Specific details are lost but there is a feeling that remains. That’s the best way I can describe it. A small town, a snowy atmosphere, several haunted houses, mystery, all in the meaty book; thoroughly presented and forever imprinted within my soul. Thus, my liking of this book has increased over time.
As mentioned, I never read The Talisman. My understand is that while this is a critically acclaimed novel, a reader, like a traveler, must prepare for a lengthy journey before beginning such an adventure. Since this is a blog dedicated to haunted houses, I haven’t been in a hurry to dive into this book. But I do read books, both horror and non-horror, that have nothing to do with haunted houses. So read this I will someday and I’m sure I will at least like it more that I will dislike it.
I wish I could say more about Peter Straub’s work. As it stands, I have only read three of his novels. Besides Ghost Story, I read Julia and Lost Boy, Lost Girl, two haunted house novels. Neither are as good as Ghost Story.
Julia is another book I place in the “Ok” department. While delightfully creepy, I found it quite vague in its telling. This was Straub’s first venture into the supernatural and I equate it to a “practice book”, a preparatory exercise that would allow him to strengthen his telling of supernatural tales, as evidenced by his later work Ghost Story
I wrote this in a review:
To me, Julia is the “practice novel;” an exercise Straub must perform while on the way toward the masterpiece that is Ghost Story. Straub learns from his early works. The fruits of his creative and mechanical maturity bear out symbolically, from the ghost of a young girl (in Julia) to the ghost of a fully grown woman (In Ghost Story). This time, Straub’s vagueness add to the overall eeriness of the story.
Now – on with my review of Lost Boy, Lost Girl. I also recommend this book lukewarmly, but for different reasons. It’s a decent story overall. A simple story with only a handful of characters. Good characters, mind you. Most of the plot is straightforward. It doesn’t meander and his points are relatively clear. However, more story-telling is needed in regards to my favorite subject – the haunted house. Now you might be thinking, “Well Cheely, just because that’s your thing, it doesn’t have to be at the heart of the story just to please you. Who are you, Cheely, that Straub must write according to your preferences?” Reader, I’ll get to your critique of my critique. You’ll see.
The plot unfolds from the perspectives of two characters; the middle-aged writer Timothy Underhill and his teenaged nephew Mark. Timothy visits his brother Phillip, who lives in another state, on two occasions, both of which are under sad and tragic circumstances. First, he arrives to attend the funeral services of Phillip’s wife/Mark’s mother Nancy who died by suicide. A short while later, Timothy returns to assist Phillip in trying to find Mark, who has gone missing. Other teens had gone missing and there is a suspicion that a serial killer is striking terror in the community. Could Mark have been a victim of this killer? Is his mother’s suicide related to his disappearance? For you see, as it turns out. Nancy is related to a serial killer who was captured some time ago. This killer’s house still stands, though no one will have anything to do with it. It’s just down the alley from Phillip and Mark’s house. Yes readers, this be the haunted house of the novel.
Mark’s perspective has him with his buddy Jimbo frittering the days away on their skateboard; two carefree teens. That is until he finds his mother’s body. He suspects there is a link to her suicidal demise and the strange things he has been seeing. In various places, he has encountered a phantom shadowy figure. What peaks Marks attention most, though, is the abandoned house down the alley. A giant wall surrounding the premise hides most of it. Why is this wall necessary? Both boys note an awkwardly built and oddly shaped extension which they correctly surmise was added on to the house by the previous owners. Their assumptions our correct, but why this extension? The boys see people in the windows, though this place is supposed to be abandoned. What’s up with that?
Suddenly and somewhat mysteriously, Mark becomes obsessed with the house. No longer does he want to “fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way” with his buddy Jimbo. He wants to watch the house. He wants to research the house. He wants to explore the house. And he does!
Sounds like an interesting story, right? Well it is. Inside, he finds secret passages. He finds mysterious photographs. He encounters torture devices! And yet, in my opinion, the atmosphere of the inside of the house isn’t fleshed out enough. There is all this build up throughout the first half of the novel, before the boys brave their way inside. Though the house reveals secrets to them, their journeys inside are a bit of a letdown. What is the overall atmosphere like inside? Straub doesn’t detail this very much. Do they hear ghostly sounds coming from the dark corners of the rooms? Not really. Is there any backstory with scenes inside its rooms? Some but not much. Does the house itself do its job to scare the reader? I would have to say “no.”
If there wasn’t a lot of suspense centered on the house, I wouldn’t complain so much. But there was and so I complain. Yes there are supernatural things at work in this story, but not in the way that is expected. Not in a way that is satisfying.
Straub wrote a sequel to this book called “In the Night Room”. I haven’t read it. According to Wikipedia:
“The novel follows Timothy Underhill, an author. He is still struggling to come to terms with the loss of his sister April and Timothy tries to channel his sorrow and frustrations into a new novel he is writing”.
Hmmm. I don’t remember anything about Timothy and Phillip having a sister. The way the story in Lost Boy, Lost Girl flows, it seems as if they were the only two siblings. So I really don’t know how much continuity is preserved between the two books.
So, based on my limited knowledge of Peter Straub’s bibliography, Ghost Story is his best. I’m anxious to read The Talisman. I know, I know, earlier I said I’ll get to it whenever. Perhaps my interest has piqued a bit since beginning this article. Will you allow me that? Of course you will.
How about you, reader? Can you recommend a Peter Straub book that is on par with Ghost Story?
And to you, Peter Straub, rest in peace. I won’t wish you to rest in power which seems to be a thing now. After passing through this earthly life, I believe one is mercifully freed of this concept of power. Power certainly can’t be restful, and the dearly departed need to rest. They have earned it. Peace is the better way experience the afterlife.