Peter Straub’s newest, A Dark Matter, was released by Doubleday yesterday. Today, Straub was kind enough to answer a few questions on this book for us here at Hellnotes. Before you get started, here’s what Stephen King has to say about A Dark Matter: “Peter Straub’s new novel is a terrifying story of innocents – high school students in the turbulent sixties – who stumble into horrors far beyond their understanding. A Dark Matter is populated with vivid, sympathetic characters, and driven by terrors both human and supernatural. It’s the kind of book that’s impossible to put down once it has been picked up. It kept me reading far into the night. Straub builds otherworldly terror without ever losing touch with his attractive cast of youngsters, who age beautifully. Put this one high on your list.”
1) A Dark Matter is packed with literary references. Was the plot itself influenced by William Blake’s Milton a Poem? They share several common elements.
Well, I have read a lot of books and take a great interest in them, so making literary references is really second-nature, I mean deeply habitual, with me. However, I never really got much into Blake, and know nothing about “A Poem.” So what you see in my nearly non-existent plot could not have been influenced by it.
2) The sequence in which author Lee Harwell looks into a mirror and sees himself as extremely old and unattractive is similar to a scene in Dorothy Macardle’s ghost novel The Uninvited. Was this an intentional homage?
Once again, I strike out. I have never even heard of Dorothy Macardle. Probably she did this better than I did. It just seemed like the sort of thing that would befall poor Lee Harwell during his worst moment, when he is half-heartedly trying to catch his wife cheating on him. He disgusts himself, therefore he can turn his back on his paranoid fears and correct his course. I’ll have to call up Dorothy, ask her if she had something similar in mind. Maybe she’ll let me buy her a drink at the Four Seasons, or someplace swanky like that. The Old King Cole bar, say.
3) An extended limited edition of of A Dark Matter is published under the title The Skylark. What made you decide to go with the titles you did, in the respective editions? Why the change?
The original title of the book was The Skylark. At some point, a chain bookstore was shown the proposed cover, and responded with the comment that this title seemed less than commercial to them. So we changed it. The Skylark was 300 pages longer than A Dark Matter, in the third person rather than the first, and completely different in tone and atmosphere from the finished product. It is not a good as A Dark Matter, but I have to say it’s pretty interesting, and I thought it should be made available for the small number of people who would care enough, be interested enough in both the book and how it progressed, to want to read it. it will be available in an edition of 550, and I believe it is already sold out. All of those people will also buy A Dark Matter, they’re wonderful.
4) A novella entitled A Special Place: The Heart of a Dark Matter will be published later this year. It focuses on one of the characters in A Dark Matter, Keith Hayward. The novella will intensely probe his relationship with his serial killer uncle. The mentorship aspect of evil was touched upon in the novel; what was it about the relationship you wanted to explore in great detail?
What I had in mind was a depiction of the young Keith Hayward that would make the reader understand that his death a few years later did not represent any real loss to the human community. We are better off without him. Once had gone a short way into this material, it began speaking to me, and I became deeply involved – I am a horror writer, after all, and responses like this are the reason why.
5) Do you envision the novella as a companion piece to the novel or as a stand alone book?
I see it as a separate, strand-along work that nonetheless fits into a hole precisely its size and shape within the novel. I think the novel curls around it, protectively.
6) It is impossible not to love the character of Hootie Bly. Who or what is the inspiration for his creation?
I don’t know, he sort of formed himself out of whatever was around that day. Very shortly, I realized that I loved him, and that I wanted to get him out of that hospital as quickly as i could. I wanted him to hold the Eel and be held by her. He had a native dignity I wanted everyone else to see, too.
7) Charismatic Spencer Mallon is described as someone who “devoured innocence wholesale.” He maintains a long term connective hold on his acolytes, but doesn’t attain the lofty metaphysical status he craves. Do you see him as a much better looking Richard III — or a Richard Nixon?
Ooh, bad binary choices here. Mallon is neither one. He’s a bit like Timothy Leary, though, and he went to Boston Latin and West Point, like Leary.
8 ) The skylark is mentioned as a song, a car, but most importantly in bird form through the novel. Could you tell us a little about this symbolism?
Oh, sure. Come on, Mallon says it all, it’s right there in the book. The bird and the song are the same thing. Have you ever heard that song, really HEARD it? “Skylark” is an amazement, it’s profound, unpredictable, stunningly beautiful. Mallon knows that song, it is in his inner ear.
9) Some of the most atmospheric aspects of the novel occur when Lee Truax is interviewing other blind women. She is trying to ferret out which woman is guilty of a specific crime, but the others also make chilling confessions. How did this sequence evolve?
I’m glad you liked that section, because I am really pleased with it. The material pretty much came from nowhere, it just took off by itself and led me along behind it. All of this was absolute fun, I suppose in part because I thought the shade of Keith Hayward had entered the room and was waiting for something really nasty, really dirty to declare itself.
10) The movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird is talked about several times in your novel; there are a number of allusions to the revered work: For example, a character nicknamed Dill, and two named Lee (like author Harper Lee.) She has a mockingbird, you have a skylark. Could you tell us more about this link/bond?
You’re not going to believe this, but I have never read Harper Lee’s novel. In my high school, there are two English sections. The brighter boys read Gatsby, the rather less bright or at least less academic read Harper Lee. I’ve seen the movie twice, though, I think. That book was not in my mind at any time while I worked on A Dark Matter.