A horror writer with 14 previous novels to his credit, Peter Straub lives in New York City. Back in 1983, he collaborated with Stephen King on a highly successful book, "The Talisman," a supernatural tale that remains popular today. And a couple of years ago, Straub and King discussed the possibility of doing a sequel.
The result is "Black House," currently No. 4 on the New York Times best-seller list.
During a telephone interview, Straub remembered that he and King began wondering what Jack Sawyer "was getting into 17 years after we left him in a hotel in New Hampshire."
They began with a 37-page outline, then just sent the pages to each other by e-mail from New York to Maine, where King lives. "We get along very well," Straub said of his relationship with King. "He's very funny and very smart, and he's great company.
"In the course of writing, we had no disagreements at all. That's the absolute truth. It went extremely smoothly, right from the beginning. Each of us wrote until we came to a natural ending place. It was painless, very brotherly. In fact, we get along better than most brothers."
Straub wrote the first 50 pages because the novel is set in his home state of Wisconsin and he knows the lay of the land. Then he sent the manuscript on to King, who wrote another 100 pages and sent it back to Straub, who did his 100, and so on. "Occasionally, I'd do something in 'the key of Stephen King.' He put in jazz musicians that I like, thinking people would think I wrote it instead of him."
Straub and King found, however, that their thinking often converged. "We're both intense and very verbal. His sense of humor is more primitive than mine. He will show you the food in his mouth to get a laugh. I would never do that."
They settled on a unique voice for the book , one neither had used before — plural omniscient narrators who seem to fly around, swoop down and observe everything. Neither King nor Straub intended any symbolism in the book, although Straub admits that one irritating character, Wendell Green, "is a nasty take on dishonest journalists. Wendell is representative of a lot of people who have irritated the devil out of Stephen."
He concedes that the story's emphasis is on people who kill or abuse children, a statement he and King wanted to make, that "there are numerous children in the world who are terribly mistreated, and a lot of missing children, and we all kind of let it go."
Straub naturally gravitates toward the horror story. "I just have a melodramatic cast of mind that takes pleasure in doing that. Stephen and I are were on the "Today" show, and Katie Couric was talking about terrorism, and she said there are situations too terrible to imagine, and I thought, 'It would be hard to find a situation that was too terrible for Steve and myself to imagine.'
"The interest in horror comes out of our childhoods and the stories we read. I was drawn to a Modern Library Giant — 'Great tales of Terror and the Supernatural.' I loved it, and I carried it with me to Boy Scout camp. That material just spoke to me."
Straub also considers what he does "a safe way to look at frightening things and allows you to experience them vicariously. But it is not threatening. You just get the dessert without eating the meal."
Although Straub and King deal with "strangeness, mean-spiritedness, selfishness and deeply unpleasant behavior," they also try to celebrate the good characters. "The boy, Tyler Marshall (who is captured by the villain) is lit from within. He has a spiritual glow that people with accurate perceptions can see. Jack Sawyer is inherently good and always has been. His early journey to "the territories (in the first book), where he touched the talisman, has left a mark on him. He excites admiration and trust."
It is not necessary, says Straub, to read "The Talisman" to understand and appreciate "Black House." "We were careful to put in everything the reader would need. If you hadn't read the first book, you would only miss the way Jack acted as a kid, so fearless and determined."
Straub and King are quick to recognize the worth of a good editor. "Our editor," says Straub, "was Lee Boudreaux, who is very smart and tactful. It is up to her to point out those things that seem ill-advised or ill-written. She always starts with the good, then goes on to her criticism. She knows I'm a pussycat. She might have been a bit more apprehensive about Steve King. But Steve loves what she did. He remarked to me that her editing was 'sublime.'
The villain of their book, Charles Burnside, nicknamed "The Fisherman," is based on a real-life villain named Albert Fish. who, according to Straub, "was a deliriously troubled man. Our villain, Burnside, is not as tortured as Fish was. Fish tortured himself. He shot knitting needles into his own groin. I read a book about Fish called 'Deranged' by Harold Schecter, and then Stephen suggested we pattern our villain after him."
When Straub is writing, he would like the reader to feel the emotions he feels — "a feeling of amazed joy or fascination, tension and, occasionally, fear. You want a truly positive ending, though."
He considers it a possibility that he and King will collaborate on at least one more book. "Fantasy novels usually come in threes."