I haven’t read any Peter Straub for a long time. His Magic Terror left me cold, and when I followed that too closely by Houses Without Doors, I gave up on him altogether (but not without a loud complaint.) Still, I’ve read things by Straub I liked very much — Julia is a terrific horror novel — and after eight years, I thought he and I might come to terms. When I saw his recent collection of stories, Interior Darkness, on the library shelf, I tossed it in the bag.
I’ve said this before, but — if you bought a bag of apples, and only a quarter of them were any good, you’d take the bag back to the store. If you bought a lawn mower, and it only cut the grass a quarter of the time (or worse, only cut a quarter of your blades of grass), you’d think something was very wrong with your lawn mower. But stories are not like apples or lawn mowers. I’ll slog through dull stories and silly stories and disgusting stories in order to get to just… one story that really blows my mind. The rest can be dreck for all I care (though I will certainly take as many wonderful stories as I can get!)
In this case, out of the sixteen stories in Interior Darkness, there was one that was interesting because of its form (“A Short Guide to the City”), one that was interesting because it was so, so hallucinatory and weird — I’m still not exactly sure what happened in it, but I am certain it was deeply unpleasant (“The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine”), and one that was actually pretty good (“Little Red’s Tango”). In this last one, Straub allows his obsession with the torment of small children and the mockery of fat people to die away, and his love for jazz comes through. The entire story shines with it. It’s the one story that, although it is suffused with something supernatural (or at least odd) there is always the sense that we are safe; jazz will save us, because jazz is love.
The rest of the stories are negligible. Dull, often, or confusing, or quite extraordinarily repetitive. They are also, mostly, not traditional horror: they are, as the title of the book suggests, interior darkness: extreme cruelty, torture, the molestation of children, madness (and not in a good, give-you-chills way.) I won’t be reading Straub again. But I’m glad I read “Little Red’s Tango”. It was a decent farewell.