Interior Darkness – Peter Straub

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Doubleday - 2016.

Doubleday – 2016.

Peter Straub has spent over forty years at the cutting-edge forefront of literary horror, with a well-earned reputation as one of the genre’s masters. He’s written a good number of novels—Ghost Story, Koko, lost boy lost girl, and Shadowland, to name a handful—but also a good deal of short fiction, with five collections to his credit. Straub’s most recent collection, Interior Darkness, collects some of his best short fiction from across his forty-year career. What sets Straub apart from the pack is his writing, and a keen psychological insight into his strange and murderous characters. His prose is straightforward and accessible, carrying a strong literary weight without being ostentatious; he combines unsettling imagery and themes with dense and literate stories, brilliantly executed and powerful themes that cause the mundane to instill dread and revulsion. And several of his best tales deal with a very human horror—the, well, interior darkness within some people.

“Blue Rose” looks at the early years of a sociopath who’d go on to lead a My Lai-style massacre in Vietnam, as a preteen boy who unleashes secret violence on his younger brother and ends up tearing his already broken family apart. “The Juniper Tree” follows another boy who flees his bad home life to watch better lives on the silver screen, only to find a gentle, coaxing evil hiding in the darkness of the movie theater. “The Buffalo Hunter” is about a downtrodden man working a dead-end job, his mother fading out from Alzheimer’s and his domineering father pointing out his failings; he withdraws himself from reality, retreating into a fascination with baby bottles while being sucked in to the novels he reads, where their reality becomes more potent than anything in the real world. These three novellas are some of Straub’s best; they have well-defined characters from damaged families and broken homes that take a sharp turn down uneasy street, hitting hard enough to leave me feeling drained by the end. This isn’t the horror that gives you a mild shock, it’s the horror that cuts into your psyche.

Many of Straub’s stories work well because they create an unsettling atmosphere in stories rich with ambiguity, the narrators unreliable, the terror present but not quite clear. “Ashputtle,” for example, is about a kindergarten teacher you don’t want anywhere near your kids; she’s somehow cast herself as both Cinderella and the Evil Queen in her own fairy tale, and as an unreliable narrator, may not even realize she’s probably the reason some of her charges disappear. “Pork Pie Hat” is framed as a story within a story: a college grad interviews his hero, a once-famed jazz saxophonist named Pork Pie Hat, shortly before Hat dies. The interview is sold to a major magazine for good money, though the grad admits to leaving part of it out—an eerie Southern ghost story Pork told, of trick or treating as a kid in the bad part of town—but since the grad also admitted to “massaging” part of the interview, he’s already painted himself as an unreliable source…

Other stories are more straightforward horror stories. “Mr. Aickman’s Air Rifle” is told in the style of Robert Aickman’s strange tales, where four men in a hospital ward—a writer, a publisher, a book critic, and a plagiarist—are haunted by shared dreams before confronting a strange darkness. Then there’s the biting black humor of “Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff,” narrated by an elitist investment banker from a small religious community; when his wife cheats on him with a business rival, he seeks out a pair of “problem solvers” to avenge his honor. As Straub’s homage to Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the narrator has the misfortune of finding out just how sadistic these two “detectives” are, learning that what comes around does indeed go around as they take over his office and dominate his life.

As you move through Straub’s career, his stories become even more obfuscatory and ambitious, requiring analysis and re-reading for all the details to sink in. “The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine” skips across time and space as an aging cleaner take a hallucinogenic yacht trip down the Amazon with one of his client’s daughters, while the two engage in various sadomasochistic tortures. “Little Red’s Tango” follows a record collector’s strange trip through an ever-darkening world. “The Collected Stories of Freddie Prothero” are strange, chaotic tales left by a boy who died at an early age; the intentionally overblown introduction pegs him as a child prodigy, but the stories detail Freddie’s obsession with—or possession by?—a dark entity, leaving these as grim shadows of childhood terror. The ambiguity of these stories means most readers will love them or hate them—they are layered and confusing, but the implied terrors can make the tales truly eerie when the truth is never tangible—you can conjure up some terrifying answers of your own using the elements Straub provides.

Interior Darkness is something of a Peter Straub greatest hits collection, a career retrospective of a horror master’s short fiction. Hardcore fans may have already read these stories in the original collections, but it should serve as a decent entry point for new readers who want to see Straub’s range and diversity. There’s a number of chilling tales here, with the author’s trademark intelligence and black humor, and while I could quibble about the selections—where’s “Bunny is Good Bread?”—I think this volume covers most of Straub’s best short work—Straub’s best stories are top-shelf chillers. Straub fans should probably check the table of contents before buying, but it’s a solid collection of literary terror, and I’d recommend it to readers who enjoy short horror fiction that’s both creepy as hell and dangerously smart.

Contents List

From Houses Without Doors

  • Blue Rose
  • In the Realm of Dreams
  • The Juniper Tree
  • Going Home
  • The Buffalo Hunter
  • Bar Talk
  • A Short Guide to the City

From Magic Terror

  • Ashputtle
  • Pork Pie Hat
  • Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff

From 5 Stories

  • Little Red’s Tango
  • Lapland, or Film Noir
  • Mr. Aickman’s Air Rifle

Uncollected Stories

  • Mallon the Guru
  • The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine
  • The Collected Short Stories of Freddy Prothero

Book Details
Title: Interior Darkness
Editor: Peter Straub
First Published Date: 16 Feb 2016
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via NetGalley
MSRP: $28.95 hc / $13.99 ebook
ISBN/ASIN: 978-0385541053 / B00XSSMKW2

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