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Author of popular books on the supernatural, Peter Straub, March 18, 1981. Photo: Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

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The Essential Peter Straub Reading List

The late American writer Peter Straub combined fantasy, horror and supernatural elements with a strong literary approach to create a one-of-a-kind fabulism / BY Robert Wiersema / September 23rd, 2022

When he died on Sept. 4, Peter Straub left a legacy unparalleled in modern American literature. Combining fantasy, horror and supernatural elements with a strong literary approach, Straub created a one-of-a-kind fabulism. A bibliography, however, can be daunting for the newcomer. Here is an introduction to Straub’s works, all of them essential reading.

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1Ghost StoryPeter Straub

What was the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

I won’t tell you that, but I’ll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me…the most dreadful thing…”

Ghost Story is widely – and rightly – regarded as Straub’s magnum opus. Rooted in the regular meetings of the Chowder Society, a group of aging and distinguished gentlemen in Milburn, N.Y., who meet to drink and tell stories, it is a rich and immersive story about reckoning with the past, secrets shared and closely held and of ghosts, both figurative and literal. The 1979 book is genuinely chilling  – Stephen King said it “scared the hell outta me” after he read the manuscript – it is a masterpiece of horror and of insightful character development. This one will stick with you, perhaps forever. Almost as significant are Straub’s next two novels, Shadowland (1980) a dark, magical coming-of-age story, and Floating Dragon (1983), about the vestigial, recurring evil in a small New England town.

2JuliaPeter Straub

While Ghost Story propelled Straub to the bestseller lists, his two prior novels are worth reading and come with their own rewards. Julia (1975) is a modern gothic novel about a woman who, following the end of her marriage and the death of her daughter, purchases a huge house in London. But then she starts to see a little girl, similar in appearance to her lost daughter… is she being haunted, or is she haunting herself? In If You Could See Me Now (1977), Miles Teagarden, a struggling academic with a history of tragedy, faces similar questions. In Straub’s work, as Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

3The TalismanPeter Straub

After moving to London in 1977, Stephen King became friends with Straub, a relationship which eventually led to their collaboration on the 1984 novel, The Talisman. A dark fantasy, it focuses on 12-year-old Jack Sawyer’s epic quest from coastal New Hampshire to California in search of a crystal (the titular talisman), which may be able to save his mother from terminal cancer. As he crosses the United States, he discovers the existence of another plane called The Territories, which is populated by “twinners,” or dopplegangers of people in our world. A whopping doorstop of a novel, The Talisman is a fundamentally American fantasy (note Jack’s last name, for starters), and a singular reading experience. Owing to King’s involvement, it is probably Straub’s best-known novel, an awareness that will likely increase next year when it becomes a Netflix series helmed by The Duffer Brothers (Stranger Things). King and Straub revisited Jack Sawyer as an adult in Black House (2001); a third volume was in the planning stages at the time of Straub’s death.

4The Blue Rose TrilogyPeter Straub

With Koko (1988), Straub began to create something like a fictional universe. This novel’s search for a serial killer, with its roots in the Vietnam war, is a powerful stand-alone book (and one of the best novels of the serial killer book-boom), but it also introduces novelist Timothy Underhill, who features in later Straub books. Mystery (1990) seems, initially, something of a departure from Koko, with a young boy teaming up with an older detective to solve a decades-old cold case, but the return of Underhill in The Throat (1993) ties the trilogy together in a surprising, chilling fashion. 

5Lost Boy, Lost GirlPeter Straub

Lost Boy, Lost Girl (2003) and In the Night Room (2004) bring the story of Tim Underhill to a brilliant, shocking and often hallucinatory climax. Combining a haunted house, a serial killer, a missing child and a lifetime of secrets and horrors, the novels fold into one another, each casting new light on the events of the other. Read them both – the combination is greater, and infinitely more powerful, than one might expect.

6American Supernatural TalesPeter Straub

In addition to his work as a writer, Straub was a keen editor, and a supporter of both established and new writers. His American Supernatural Tales (2009), a two-volume set for the Library of America, is an essential compendium of American fabulism, including authors from Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne to Brian Evenson and Kelly Link. Poe’s Children: The New Horror (2008) is an overview of contemporary horror, including writers like Neil Gaiman, Thomas Ligotti and Elizabeth Hand. His most important contribution, however, is probably Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists (2002). Under his hand, this issue of the venerable literary magazine (published in book form, and still available) argues for the admittance of genre writing (horror and fantasy especially) to the literary mainstream. Not as a departure, but as a rightful homecoming – what we think of as literature has always had its roots in fabulism. The anthology has shaped the dialogue around genre and literary writing for two decades, and includes now-classic stories from John Crowley, Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman, among others.

7This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub

It might seem odd to include another author’s book in a list of recommended reading, but This Time Tomorrow is essential to understanding Peter Straub. Written by his daughter, Emma, the novel follows Alice, on the cusp of 40, who discovers a passage in time that transports her to her 16th birthday. Not only can she go back and try paths not taken, she can return multiple times, changing the future in every instance. She comes to focus her future-shaping on a single task: saving her beloved father, a writer who is dying in a New York hospital. Emma has been upfront about the autobiographical nature of the novel, and, following her father’s death, wrote on Twitter: “This Time Tomorrow was all about him dying, which is a weird thing to give your parent when they are, in fact, alive, but I am so glad I did. … That book, and our mutual understanding, mean that when he died, I didn’t doubt for a second that he knew how grateful I was to be his, and vice versa.” Reading the novel this summer was a powerful reading experience; reading it after Straub’s death is likely to be heartbreaking, in the best of ways, as a reminder of the power of words, fantasy, love and family.


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