From the Publisher
“A POWERFUL GATHERING OF
SUSPENSE AND HORROR STORIES.”
–The Denver Post
“Compelling . . . Magic Terror is bliss for readers whose love of the eerie doesn’t preclude a taste for literary elegance. . . . [Straub] is one of the few fin-de-siècle writers whose stories can stand alongside works by 20th-century masters of the macabre such as King, Robert Aickman, Shirley Jackson, and Edith Wharton.”
–The Washington Post Book World
“There is no safety in this literate and much praised cluster of stories. It’s beautifully written stuff that breaks into the place where you live, breaching all psychologically installed security systems. . . . And although we desire to read it for many reasons, the truest one is that Peter Straub writes with compassion. He gets the link between modern horror and classic tragedy.”
–The Philadelphia Inquirer
The Barnes & Noble Review
Peter Straub doesn't write a great deal of short fiction, but he makes every story count. Magic Terror, his first collection since the memorably twisted Houses Without Doors, contains seven stories previously published in assorted anthologies. Most of these stories are novellas (Straub's preferred format), and at their frequent best they are elegantly composed, deeply disturbing reflections on the beauty and terror of the world.
Two of the entries are directly connected to Straub's Stoker Award-winning novel,The Throat. "The Ghost Village" recasts one of the central incidents from that novel: Tim Underhill's visit to the haunted village of Bong To, where he encounters the spirit of a murdered Vietnamese child, along with the ghosts of two recently deceased platoon mates. Straub's account of Bong To and its aftermath is reshaped for inclusion in this novella and is framed by a story that does not appear in the original novel: the story of Private Leonard Hamnet and his attempts to return home to "take care" of his wife and young son, who has been sexually molested by the leader of a local church choir. "The Ghost Village," which works quite well as a stand-alone narrative, received a well-deserved World Fantasy Award as Best Novella of 1993.
"Bunny Is Good Bread," originally published as "Fee," consists entirely of material that was excised from the final version of The Throat. "Bunny" tells the wrenching story of Fielding "Fee" Bandolier, an abused young boy who will grow up to becomeaspectacularly successful serial killer. The story centers on key moments in Fee's spiritual and psychological disintegration: his mother's death at the hands of his drunken, murderous father and his own seduction by a local child molester named Heinz Stenmitz.
"Bunny Is Good Bread" is the definitive treatment of one of Straub's classic themes: the making of a monster through the systematic application of violence, cruelty, and neglect. It is also, arguably, the single most desolating piece of fiction that Straub has ever written.
"Ashputtle," a story whose title and primary imagery are derived from the Brothers Grimm, features a serial killer of a very different type. The central figure, a grotesquely overweight kindergarten teacher named Mrs. Asch, sees herself as an embodiment of the abused, abandoned Ashputtle of the fairy tale. She also sees herself as an artist who sometimes resorts to murder to drive home her fundamental lesson: that hope is not "an essential component of the universe." Straub has written frequently about the consolations of art. "Ashputtle," by contrast, takes a chilling look at what can happen to the artistic impulse when it is fueled and warped by bitterness, misery, and rage.
"Pork Pie Hat," a personal favorite, is a powerfully enigmatic novella about murder, music, and childhood memories. The story focuses on a legendary jazz musician who is known, simply, as "Hat" and who is a fictional analogue of jazz great Lester Young. During the convoluted course of this story within a story, the narrator a nameless Columbia University grad student attempts to come to terms with a traumatic, unresolved incident from Hat's Mississippi childhood. In the process, he offers us a moving portrait of the nature and meaning "the whole long curve" of a master musician's life.
"Hunger: An Introduction" was, in fact, written as a kind of mock introduction to an anthology of ghost stories that Straub himself edited in 1995. "Hunger" is narrated by the late Frank Wardwell, a former embezzler whose career ended in murder, disgrace, and eventual execution in the electric chair. Frank's story begins as a lecture on the most common misperceptions regarding ghosts and ends as a disquisition on the theme of supernatural hunger and on the beauty of the world as seen through the eyes of the dead. This one is notable for the vibrantly comic voice that Straub created for his unlovable narrator, a voice at once pompous and preening, fatuous and overbearing, endlessly self-justifying and steeped, at all times, in an unimpeachable aura of self-regard.
"Isn't It Romantic?" is an atypically conventional story written for an Adams Round Table anthology called Murder on the Run. In keeping with that implied theme, Straub gives us the ironic account of an itinerant professional assassin attempting to complete the final assignment of his career. The assassin, known only as N, has traveled to the Basque region of France to eliminate a troublesome arms dealer. N has carried out this sort of mission a hundred times before, but this time nothing works as planned.
"Isn't It Romantic?" is a cool, assured, thoroughly entertaining performance, but it lacks the eccentric, obsessional power that characterizes Straub's best, most representative short fiction. Magic Terror closes with the strange and brilliant "Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff," a long, extremely unsettling novella loosely patterned after Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener. In Straub's version, a successful Wall Street financier discovers that his wife is having an affair with a hated rival. Blinded by rage, he hires Clubb and Cuff enigmatic representatives of an "invisible design" to serve as the agents of his revenge. Before the story is over, the nameless narrator will be taken on a "great journey" that will alter his universe in fundamental ways and change his life forever. "Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff" is both a meditation on cosmic mysteries and a penetrating commentary on greed, corruption, and the poisoning of the spirit. It is also an authentic black comic masterpiece that brings this long-overdue collection to a resonant, memorable conclusion.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub,At the Foot of the Story Tree, has just been published by Subterranean Press.
Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
Horror-master Peter Straub promises to deliver thrills galore in this short-story collection.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The war-numbed soldier who asks, "Just suppose...,that you were forced to confront extreme experience directly, without any mediation?" speaks for all of the spiritually traumatized souls who navigate the harrowingly rendered hells of these seven tales of suspense and horror. Straub (Mr. X) effortlessly plumbs the hearts and minds of a range of well-developed characters--including a reflective assassin for hire, a five-year-old victim of domestic violence, an aging black jazz musician and a pompous Wall Street financial adviser--to locate epiphanic moments when their lives careened "out of the ordinary" and into the path of deforming private tragedy. In "Ashputtle," an implied murderess blames her crimes on an emotionally deprived childhood in which she imagines herself a modern Cinderella victimized by her cruel stepsisters. "Bunny Is Good Bread," an unnerving portrait of the psychopath as a young boy, follows young Fee Bandolier as he maladjusts to an unbearably gothic home situation in which his father has beaten his mother into a coma. "Porkpie Hat" is related as an alcoholic saxophonist's confession of a childhood brush with witchcraft, murder and miscegenation that continues to inform his blues-haunted music. In several of the tales--most notably "The Haunted Village," which links to the novel Koko (1988) and stories from his previous collection, Houses Without Doors (1990)--Straub skillfully evokes the supernatural to suggest the dislocating effect of intense psychological upset. Mixing stark realism with black comedy, and reverberating with echoes of Conrad, Melville and the Brothers Grimm, these excursions to the dark side of life set a high standard for the literature of contemporary magic terror. (July) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Straub is not called a master of horror for nothing. In this collection of seven tales, ranging from the story of a grade school teacher with an evil secret to a Vietnam War grunt whose reality is "melting at the edges," Straub shows that horror comes in numerous forms--many of which are not so much frightening as deeply disturbing. The true power of the stories here will not really affect readers until several hours after they have finished reading the tales, which can inspire a multitude of reactions. The final story in the collection, "Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff," demonstrates Straub's familiarity with Victorian-era literature and his ability to stand a writing style on its ear. Sex and violence go hand-in-hand with horror of this kind so this collection is not for the faint-of-heart. Highly recommended for all horror collections.--Alicia Graybill, Lincoln City Libs., NE Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
...clever exercises in horror...
The New York Times
A solid third collection (following Houses Without Doors, 1990, and Wild Animals, 1984) of the veteran horror writer's insidious and disturbing short fiction, featuring two already famous stories. "The Ghost Village,` winner of a World Fantasy Award, is a Vietnam combat tale (with interesting echoes of Straub's novel Koko); a partial homage to Conrad's Heart of Darkness in its revelations of what happens to a soldier `forced to confront extreme experience directly`and of the shapes assumed by an embattled village's collective guilt. The highly praised `Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff` offers a similar nod to Melville's Beckett-like `Bartleby the Scrivener.` The story concerns a highborn attorney who, outraged by his wife's infidelity, hires the eponymous private `consultant` team to punish the adulteressand, in a series of grimly funny, increasingly ghastly episodes, learns the full extent of their enigmatic promise that `our work brings about permanent changes which can never be undone.` It's the best thing Straub has yet written. Of the five other stories, one is a fairly conventional (though skillfully constructed) tale of a secretive `travel writer's` real (criminal) mission in Paris (`Isn't It Romantic?`); two (`Ashputtle` and `Hunger, an Introduction`) are stylized monologues that portray the makings of two very different homicidal maniacs; and `Porkpie Hat` is an overly convoluted tale about a Mississippi backwater murder and haunting set also in the world of jazz and jazzmen Straub obviously loves. And the superb `Bunny is Good Bread` traces with unnerving precision (and in horrific detail) the stages through which an emotionally and sexually abused boy grows intoarighteous psychopathic killer; it's one of the most unnerving of Straub's several dramatizations of the ways that children perceive adults as monsters threatening to destroy them. The creepy archaisms and deliberately fruity neo-Victorian style used to devastating effect in the best of these vivid stories suggest that Straub might think of undertaking a full-dress historical horror novel, something along the lines of Caleb Carr's The Alienist. You have to believe he has the chops for it. Author tour
Read an Excerpt
People think that teaching little children has something to do with helping other people, something to do with service. People think that if you teach little children, you must love them. People get what they need from thoughts like this.
People think that if you happen to be very fat and are a person who acts happy and cheerful all the time, you are probably pretending to be that way in order to make them forget how fat you are, or cause them to forgive you for being so fat. They make this assumption, thinking you are so stupid that you imagine that you're getting away with this charade. From this assumption, they get confidence in the superiority of their intelligence over yours, and they get to pity you, too.
Those figments, those stepsisters, came to me and said, Don't you know that we want to help you? They came to me and said, Can you tell us what your life is like?
These moronic questions they asked over and over: Are you all right? Is anything happening to you? Can you talk to us now, darling? Can you tell us about your life?
I stared straight ahead, not looking at their pretty hair or pretty eyes or pretty mouths. I looked over their shoulders at the pattern on the wallpaper and tried not to blink until they stood up and went away.
What my life was like? What was happening to me?
Nothing was happening to me. I was all right.
They smiled briefly, like a twitch in their eyes and mouths, before they stood up and left me alone. I sat still on my chair and looked at the wallpaper while they talked to Zena.
The wallpaper was yellow, with white lines going up and down through it. The lines never touchedjust when they were about to run into each other, they broke, and the fat thick yellow kept them apart.
I liked seeing the white lines hanging in the fat yellow, each one separate.
When the figments called me darling, ice and snow stormed into my mouth and went pushing down my throat into my stomach, freezing everything. They didn't know I was nothing, that I would never be like them, they didn't know that the only part of me that was not nothing was a small hard stone right at the center of me.
That stone has a name. MOTHER.
If you are a female kindergarten teacher in her fifties who happens to be very fat, people imagine that you must be truly dedicated to their children, because you cannot possibly have any sort of private life. If they are the parents of the children in your kindergarten class, they are almost grateful that you are so grotesque, because it means that you must really care about their children. After all, even though you couldn't possibly get any other sort of job, you can't be in it for the money, can you? Because what do people know about your salary? They know that garbage men make more money than kindergarten teachers. So at least you didn't decide to take care of their delightful, wonderful, lovable little children just because you thought you'd get rich, no no.
Therefore, even though they disbelieve all your smiles, all your pretty ways, even though they really do think of you with a mixture of pity and contempt, a little gratitude gets in there.
Sometimes when I meet with one of these parents, say a fluffy-haired young lawyer, say named Arnold Zoeller, Arnold and his wife, Kathi, Kathi with an i, mind you, sometimes when I sit behind my desk and watch these two slim handsome people struggle to keep the pity and contempt out of their well-cared-for faces, I catch that gratitude heating up behind their eyes.
Arnold and Kathi believe that a pathetic old lumpo like me must love their lovely little girl, a girl say named Tori, Tori with an i (for Victoria). And I think I do rather love little Tori Zoeller, yes I do think I love that little girl. My mother would have loved her, too. And that's the God's truth.
I can see myself in the world, in the middle of the world.
I see that I am the same as all nature.
In our minds exists an awareness of perfection, but nothing on earth, nothing in all of nature, is perfectly conceived. Every response comes straight out of the person who is responding.
I have no responsibility to stimulate or satisfy your needs. All that was taken care of a long time ago. Even if you happen to be some kind of supposedly exalted person, like a lawyer. Even if your name is Arnold Zoeller, for example.
Once, briefly, there existed a golden time. In my mind existed an awareness of perfection, and all of nature echoed and repeated the awareness of perfection in my mind. My parents lived, and with them, I too was alive in the golden time. Our name was Asch, and in fact I am known now as Mrs. Asch, the Mrs. being entirely honorific, no husband having ever been in evidence, nor ever likely to be. (To some sixth-graders, those whom I did not beguile and enchant as kindergartners, those before whose parents I did not squeeze myself into my desk chair and pronounce their dull, their dreary treasures delightful, wonderful, lovable, above all intelligent, I am known as Mrs. Fat-Asch. Of this I pretend to be ignorant.) Mr. and Mrs. Asch did dwell together in the golden time, and both mightily did love their girl-child. And then, whoops, the girl-child's Mommy upped and died. The girl-child's Daddy buried her in the estate's church yard, with the minister and everything, in the coffin and everything, with hymns and talking and crying and the animals standing around, and Zena, I remember, Zena was already there, even then. So that was how things were, right from the start.
The figments came because of what I did later. They came from a long way awaythe city, I think. We never saw city dresses like that, out where we lived. We never saw city hair like that, either. And one of those ladies had a veil!
One winter morning during my first year teaching kindergarten here, I got into my carI shoved myself into my car, I should explain; this is different for me than for you, I rammed myself between the seat and the steering wheel, and I drove forty miles east, through three different suburbs, until I got to the city, and thereupon I drove through the city to the slummiest section, where dirty people sit in their cars and drink right in the middle of the day. I went to the department store nobody goes to unless they're on welfare and have five or six kids all with different last names. I just parked on the street and sailed in the door. People like that, they never hurt people like me.
Down in the basement was where they sold the wallpaper, so I huffed and puffed down the stairs, smiling cute as a button whenever anybody stopped to look at me, and shoved myself through the aisles until I got to the back wall, where the samples stood in big books like the fairy-tale book we used to have. I grabbed about four of those books off the wall and heaved them over onto a table there in that section and perched myself on a little tiny chair and started flipping the pages.
A scared-looking black kid in a cheap suit mumbled something about helping me, so I gave him my happiest, most pathetic smile and said, well, I was here to get wallpaper, wasn't I? What color did I want, did I know? Well, I was thinking about yellow, I said. Uh-huh, he says, what kinda yellow you got in mind? Yellow with white lines in it. Uh-huh, says he, and starts helping me look through those books with all those samples in them. They have about the ugliest wallpaper in the world in this place, wallpaper like sores on the wall, wallpaper that looks like it got rained on before you get it home. Even the black kid knows this crap is ugly, but he's trying his damnedest not to show it.
I bestow smiles everywhere. I'm smiling like a queen riding through her kingdom in a carriage, like a little girl who just got a gold and silver dress from a turtledove up in a magic tree. I'm smiling as if Arnold Zoeller himself and of course his lovely wife are looking across my desk at me while I drown, suffocate, stifle, bury their lovely, intelligent little Tori in golden words.
I think we got some more yellow in this book here, he says, and fetches down another big fairy-tale book and plunks it between us on the table. His dirty-looking hands turn those big stiff pages. And just as I thought, just as I knew would happen, could happen, would probably happen, but only here in this filthy corner of a filthy department store, this ignorant but helpful lad opens the book to my mother's wallpaper pattern.
I see that fat yellow and those white lines that never touch anything, and I can't help myself, sweat breaks out all over my body, and I groan so horribly that the kid actually backs away from me, lucky for him, because in the next second I'm bending over and throwing up interesting-looking reddish goo all over the floor of the wallpaper department. Oh God, the kid says, oh lady. I groan, and all the rest of the goo comes jumping out of me and splatters down on the carpet. Some older black guy in a clip-on bow tie rushes up toward us but stops short with his mouth hanging open as soon as he sees the mess on the floor. I take my hankie out of my bag and wipe off my mouth. I try to smile at the kid, but my eyes are too blurry. No, I say, I'm fine, I want to buy this wallpaper for my kitchen, this one right here. I turn over the page to see the name of my mother's wallpaperZena's wallpaper, tooand discover that this kind of wallpaper is called "The Thinking Reed."
You don't have to be religious to have inspirations.
An adventurous state of mind is like a great dwelling place.
To be lived truly, life must be apprehended with an adventurous state of mind.
But no one on earth can explain the lure of adventure.
Zena's example gave me two tricks that work in my classroom, and the reason they work is that they are not actually tricks!
The first of these comes into play when a particular child is disobedient or inattentive, which, as you can imagine, often occurs in a room full of kindergarten-age children. I deal with these infractions in this fashion. I command the child to come to my desk. (Sometimes, I command two children to come to my desk.) I stare at the child until it begins to squirm. Sometimes it blushes or trembles. I await the physical signs of shame or discomfort. Then I pronounce the child's name. "Tori," I say, if the child is Tori. Its little eyes invariably fasten upon mine at this instant. "Tori," I say, "you know that what you did is wrong, don't you?" Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the child nods its head. "And you will never do that wrong thing again, will you?" Most often the child can speak to say No. "Well, you'd better not," I say, and then I lean forward until the little child can see nothing except my enormous, inflamed face. Then in a guttural, lethal, rumble-whisper, I utter, "OR ELSE." When I say "OR ELSE," I am very emphatic. I am so very emphatic that I feel my eyes change shape. I am thinking of Zena and the time she told me that weeping on my mother's grave wouldn't make a glorious wonderful tree grow there, it would just drown my mother in mud.
The attractiveness of teaching is that it is adventurous, as adventurous as life.
My mother did not drown in mud. She died some other way. She fell down in the middle of the downstairs parlor, the parlor where Zena sat on her visits. Zena was just another lady then, and on her visits, her "social calls," she sat on the best antique chair and held her hands in her lap like the most modest, innocent little lady ever born. She was half Chinese, Zena, and I knew she was just like bright sharp metal inside of her, metal that could slice you but good. Zena was very adventurous, but not as adventurous as me. Zena never got out of that town. Of course, all that happened to Zena was that she got old, and everybody left her all alone because she wasn't pretty anymore, she was just an old yellow widow-lady, and then I heard that she died pulling up weeds in her garden. I heard this from two different people. You could say that Zena got drowned in mud, which proves that everything spoken on this earth contains a truth not always apparent at the time.
The other trick I learned from Zena that is not a trick is how to handle a whole class that has decided to act up. These children come from parents who, thinking they know everything, in fact know less than nothing. These children will never see a classical manner demonstrated at home. You must respond in a way that demonstrates your awareness of perfection. You must respond in a way that will bring this awareness to the unruly children, so that they too will possess it.
It can begin in a thousand different ways. Say I am in conference with a single studentsay I am delivering the great OR ELSE. Say that my attention has wandered off for a moment, and that I am contemplating the myriad things I contemplate when my attention is wandering free. My mother's grave, watered by my tears. The women with city hair who desired to give me help, but could not, so left to be replaced by others, who in turn were replaced by yet others. How it felt to stand naked and besmeared with my own feces in the front yard, moveless as a statue, the same as all nature, classical. The gradual disappearance of my father, like that of a figure in a cartoon who grows increasingly transparent until total transparency is reached. Zena facedown in her garden, snuffling dirt up into her nostrils. The resemblance of the city women to certain wicked stepsisters in old tales. Also their resemblance to handsome princes in the same tales.