Monday, March 28, 2016


Although the master of Gothic horror, PETER STRAUB, is as responsible as anyone for the popularization (if that is the word) of narratives about serial killers, his name is conspicuously absent in a recent New York Times article heralding Brett Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel, AMERICAN PSYCHO. Now that Ellis’s story reaches Broadway in April this year, is profile of an amoral Wall Street serial killer is back in the headlines. Yet, it was Straub’s trilogy, MYSTERY, KOKO, and THE THROAT, published 1988-1993, that definitively put such stories on the map. No one, before or since, has investigated more thoroughly, even sensitively, the predatory species.

Photo courtesy of John C. Tibbetts

An excerpt from my forthcoming book, PETER STRAUB: PICTURES IN THE FIRE, is in order:

“‘Unlike you and me,’” says serial killer Till Hayward to his “protégé,” Keith, in Straub’s short story,“A Special Place,” most [serial killers] “hide their real motives from themselves:

They have no idea why they do the things they do. Oh, they talk all day long about what made them do this and that, but what they tell you isn’t even close to the truth. Because they don’t know the truth. And why is that? They can’t let themselves know it. The truth is unacceptable. Every human being on earth tells millions of lies in the course of his life, but most of those lies are to himself about himself.”

More than one reader has flinched at Straub’s gruesomely detailed accounts of these visceral horrors. Yet Straub insists his preoccupation with the serial killer, in particular, provides the writer opportunities to measure the stark confrontation of life and death, to relish “the passage into death [which] is an immense transition from the temporal into the eternal.”

They conduct their lives as a Great Secret, Straub continues, “of daylight anonymity and nocturnal evil: “If you run your life that way, the most important part of your life must be secret; everything else is a sort of code.” A key to that code may be, as in Straub’s other stories, “Bunny Is Good Bread” and “The Juniper Tree,” the formative influences on serial killers of childhood trauma and abuse:
I always went back to that same conception that some people are made out of other people who have a great potential for good that was by cruelty and ignorance pounded out of them , so their lives turn into retribution. Unfortunately, the retribution is wreaked upon the innocent. 
Further, “[Their] whole childhoods are composed of such cruelties I feel empathy for them. What I feel for the man who grew up from that child—I feel a kind of extremity of pity. I think, ‘You shouldn’t be that way. Somebody made you that way. . . For much of my work, when I look at the serial killer, in a way he’s the most beloved character in the book. This surely must give my work an odd taste, but it’s worth thinking about.”
Painting of Straub by John C. Tibbetts

As renewed attention focuses on Ellis’s 1991 novel (and Broadway play), it would be well to investigate what Peter Straub, THE master of serial-killer narratives, has to say in his books!

Monday, March 21, 2016


Directed by Xavier Giannoli and starring Catherine Frot in the title role and Denis Mpunga as the butler Madelbois.

You come away from the French serio-comedy, MARGUERITE, with the uncomfortable sense that “artistry” is not what really constitutes Art. Rather, it’s “heart” that drives Art. Hardly a novel idea, but I’ve never seen it better conveyed than in this magnificent tribute to a wealthy French aristocrat whose unsteady voice betrays the demands of operatic performance, but whose sincerity of purpose and sheer love of opera overrides her mortal failings and transcends opera itself.

Loosely based on the real-life character, Florence Foster Jenkins (whose biopic is soon to come at the hands of actress Meryl Street and director Stephen Frears), MARGUERITE recasts the story into the early 1920s and the personae of the baroness Marguerite Dumont and her faithful butler, Madelbois. Marguerite has won a close circle of supporters and music lovers—not by dint of her singing voice but through the generosity of the money she contributes to the War Effort veterans. Who could dispute a cause as important as that? And as long as her audiences are limited to that select coterie, her singing goes challenged. But when she takes it into her head to perform a public recital, her supporters are thrown into a panic. It seems she has never really “heard” her own voice. (Indeed, how many of us truly know what we sound like? The first time we hear a playback of ourselves via a tape recorder is likely to be a startling, even dismaying experience.) So, when she first hears a playback of her singing on a phonograph record, she is so startled that she suffers a stroke.

Aiding, abetting, and protecting her from the nasty realities of her singing voice is her faithful butler, Madelbois. This Machiavellian presence does it all, quietly stage-managing behind the scenes her private recitals, photographing her in operatic costumes, and in general supporting the illusion of her artistry. It is a compelling performance by Denis Mpunga—in every respect as compelling—and artful—as that of Catherine Frot as Marguerite. In this wise, the movie reminds me of another movie about the discrepancies between Art and Artistry, Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD. Marguerite’s butler is to her as Erich von Stroheim’s chauffeur is to faded movie queen Gloria Swanson. In both cases it is the puppeteer who “performs” the puppet. And in both cases, there is a weird, rather discomfiting revelation that behind whatever we call Art is nothing but artifice and the frailty of the human heart. But that is enough. The French master Jean Renoir knew that. And this new film, MARGUERITE, enacts it in stunning fashion.