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|
“‘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!