Author of such tales of the fantastic as Julia, Ghost Story, and In the Night Room, and editor of the Library of America's H.P. Lovecraft collections, Peter Straub is uniquely qualified to hold forth on what makes a good horror story. In the new anthology Poe's Children: The New Horror, Straub collects the best scary short stories out there. TIME talked to him about snobby writers, horror classics, and his next collaboration with Stephen King.
It seems like you're trying to make an argument with this anthology for what defines the "new horror."
I thought I could make an interesting book around this thesis that the world of horror was being increasingly absorbed into mainstream writing and was absorbing mainstream writing into itself. There were all these writers, like Kelly Link, who seemed to swing back and forth, or who seemed to be in both places at the same time. This really delighted me.
Many people, when they think of horror, think of ghosts and zombies and vampires and demons. You seem to be saying, though, that those can be only the most minor elements of a great horror story.
That's true. But it all depends on your angle of vision. I have friends who really want to write stories with those elements, and do, and have an immensely good time. And that's all they're doing. I'm not interested in those stories. I like them as people, but that writing doesn't strike me as inherently interesting.
Are critics and audiences regarding horror differently these days, or is it the writers themselves who are doing something more expansive?
I think it's the latter. From [fantasy writers] John Crowley and Jonathan Carroll outwards, there have been these waves of people who wrote as through it were perfectly natural to use horror, or fantasy, or sci-fi approaches and themes in mainstream stories, or vice versa. It seems to me that you get the best of both worlds in that way. And in fact, the ultimate argument I would make is that there is essentially just one world if you're talking about good fiction.
Do you think non-horror writers still look down upon the genre? You still seem a little peeved at Shirley Hazzard for ragging on Stephen King at the 2003 National Book Awards.
I thought that was egregious. It rankled a bit that she should have told off Steve, and in effect dismissed him when he had just given this really great talk and the [National Book Foundation] had just given him a really serious honor. It was small-minded of Shirley Hazzard to object to his content.
Is that general attitude still prevalent among literary writers?
It both is and isn't. There are a great many people who don't make those distinctions at all, who distinguish only between work that is well done, and work that is not, between work that is nice to read and work that is a chore. Those are the sorts of judgments one should be making. Does it work, is it good, do I like reading it?
You write about the "new horror," but what's the "old horror" that you would recommend to readers?
I would say Frankenstein and Dracula, those two should be read. They aren't anything at all alike. There's a great novella by Arthur Machen called "The Great God Pan." Knocked my socks off when I was thirteen. Anything by Shirley Jackson. The Haunting of Hill House or The Demon Lover, which is a fabulous storyvery eerie, but completely realistic. It suggests that there's a realm that we are very close to, but cannot quite apprehend, a realm that may not be very friendly to us.
Are you ever going to do a third Talisman book with Stephen King?
I believe so. Steve and I agreed years back that we would do a third one, and that would be it, because Black House virtually sets up, and all but promises a follow-up. And then we would have a three-volume fantasy novel. That's perfect. That's probably what it wanted to be from the beginning.