Peter Straub, my friend of 30+ years has died of heart failure. I was deeply saddened by the news and thought back to the events that led to our good friendship.
Many years ago, I decided to make my bones as a columnist with a very crazy entry entitled “The (Pretty) Good; The (Not-So) Bad; and The (Man-This-Is-Gonna-Get) Ugly,” which appeared in a 1987 issue of Horrorstruck. The subject of the column was me naming names on HDF’s most over-rated and under-rated writers—ballsy, I know, but hey, you should have seen the letters (people used to write them back then before we had email) I got when I announced this one as “Coming Soon!” My readers were “nominating” all kinds of people for both sides of the aisle, urging me to praise or pillory a legion of various writers. Fascinating, it was.
However, to reprise my selections would go, as the professors are wont to say, beyond the scope of this essay, so I can only advise to do one of three things: (a) dig out your moldy editions of Horrorstruck, (b) plink down $50 for the omnibus MAFIA collection, or (c) fuggheddabouddit.
The only thing you need to know right now is that one of the writers I listed as over-rated was our very own Peter Straub.
Yeah, I know . . . as I look back on that profligate time of my life known as the “pre-Elizabethan Era,” I can now see I was the consummate mook. I proved Mark Twain’s admonition concerning opening one’s mouth and removing all doubt. I was making a career of doing that.
So here’s what I wrote more than thirty years ago:
“I think the biggest problem with Straub’s work is that he makes things intentionally murky when, really, a little less murk would do just fine, thank you.
And yet, at other times, Peter Straub can be a wonderful writer, a truly fine writer. (Go read his novelette, “Blue Rose,” in Dennis Etchison’s Cutting Edge anthology —it’s a fabulous piece of work.) I just feel that in terms of delivering a good piece of story-telling at the novel length, Peter Straub is over-rated. He’s not yet one of our best, even though he’s consciously trying to be (something that can get your ass into some deep shit real quick).”
That sound you hear is me—groaning as I re-read those words. And I can just imagine the sounds Peter made when he first read them lo those three decades behind us. (“A little less murk” . . . . Jesus, what an ass I was. )
Okay, so moving right along, in addition to poking a flaming stick into Peter’s eye, I also stirred up some of the other writers and their fans. I received lots of letters and post cards—a lot of it brimming over with promises to do damage to me. But I heard nothing from Peter—for several possible reasons—because he (a) probably hadn’t seen the issue of Horrorstruck in which my offending column had appeared, and (b) he was far too much of a cultured gentleman to ever sully himself by getting down in the mire with a blowhard like me.
Time, as they say, passed.
The year was 1993, and the fledgling World Horror Convention was being held in Stamford, Connecticut, and had selected Peter Straub as their Guest of Honor. I was on the docket to do some panels and a reading and to do some partying with my pal, Paulie. Elizabeth had some business appointments on Friday, but was taking a late train that would get her in around 10:00 pm.
Since I had driven up earlier, this meant I was off my tether for about eight hours, wandering about the convention hotel and free to create as much damage as I could. My travels took me to the very nicely appointed hotel bar, where I ran into an old friend and brilliant writer, Tom McDonald. We sat and drank and exchanged witty repartee with some of the other writers and editors in attendance. Having been delighted to discover the bar stocked a great sour mash whiskey with the unseemly name of George Dickel, I had indulged myself with several glasses on the rocks, and was feeling not a whole lot of pain.
Because of this, my memory of the events which followed are dimmed by alcohol and the fullness of time, but maybe some brave soul who witnessed the proceedings will step forward and verify my accounting.
Allow me to set the scene: I was sitting at the bar, laughing and talking animatedly and being a bit of a loudmouth—when I looked up to see an imposing figure enter the bar with several con committee folks in tow. The Guest of Honor had arrived and his name was Peter Straub. I watched him approach the bar with panache. He was definitely a potential customer for the Big and Tall Shops, and he had an infectious smile that lit up his face. He wore his horn-rimmed glasses and his baldness like merit badges he was damned proud he’d earned. He spoke with the wide, easy pronunciations of the Midwest that bespoke an intelligent, kind, and courteous man. Because I am a writer who notices these kinds of things, I had taken all the above in within an instant.
So this is Peter Straub, I thought. I like this guy already.
But then, fogged by akka-hahl as I may have been, my mind still reeled in an old fact—as one might snag a piece of rotten trash from the bottom of a pristine pond—and the fact was this: I had insulted and attacked this man in my dopey column several years ago.
What was I to do?
As I sat on my barstool, pretending to be listening to the banter of those around me, I kept launching furtive glances towards Peter, who didn’t seem to have noticed. I decided I would have to introduce myself and make some sort of lame apology for my grandstanding nonsense at Peter’s expense. Problem was, I wasn’t sure how to pull it off with anything much resembling aplomb. My immediate solution was to order another George Dickel in the hope that “something would come to me.”
That “something” turned out to be Peter Straub.
As I accepted my glass from the bartender, I sensed a looming presence to my right, and turning, I found myself staring into the round smiling face of Peter Straub. He introduced himself with a warm formality that suggested he already knew who I was—even though he was giving me the chance to respond in kind. I did, and we shook hands, and fumbled around with some small talk. The longer our conversation ensued, the more I started to think I was “safe” in that either Peter didn’t know or remember my column or he didn’t give a damn.
Yeah, I was thinking those kind of thoughts when he enacted a deliberate twinkle in his eye and averred impishly: “You know, I just had to meet the fellow who thinks I’m so over-rated . . . .”
Okay, so there it was. Out there in the atmosphere between us like a particularly noisome fart. For one of the only times in my life, I felt not only embarrassed, but also at a loss for words. Yet I knew I must respond.
So I said: “Yeah, that’s me. But that was back when I wore a younger man’s clothes.”
Peter grinned, shook his head ever so slightly. “Hmmm, not that much younger.”
“Listen,” I said. “I really am sorry about that column.”
“No, no, no,” said Peter. “Don’t be. Believe it or not, I think we all need more honest criticism.”
“Really?” I was relieved, but still wary as I waited for the other shoe to drop.
But Peter was cool. He’d sought me out to give me a good dusting, and having accomplished his mission with style and grace, he was pretty much done with it. Other people drifted in and out of the conversation while I sat there absorbing the classy manner that defines Peter. Very few writers had the confidence and the sense of decorum to do what he’d done, and I respected him immensely for the way he’d handled the yapping annoyance that was me.
As a coda to this first meeting, I need to add this: later on in the evening, after retrieving Elizabeth from the Stamford train station, we returned to the hotel, whereupon the first person we encountered was Peter in the lobby. He was beaming and jovial from more than a few cocktails and as I introduced him to my wife, he became a veritable beacon of wit and savoir faire. It was obvious he was completely taken with Elizabeth’s striking good looks and flirtatious charm, and I had a feeling things might turn out okay after all.
Later on that weekend, Peter and I were at a party and in the glow of vodka martinis, Peter confessed to me that “anyone married to a woman like Elizabeth couldn’t be all bad.”
I smiled and told him that she was definitely the best part of me and that she was still in the process of conquering my worst traits.
Tom McDonald happened to be standing nearby and he leaned closer to Peter and smiled knowingly. “Elizabeth hasn’t just conquered him,” he said. “She’s stuck a flag in him!”
We all laughed, but I could tell Peter appreciated the core truth of the remark very much. And to this day, I know he tolerates my friendship because of my beautiful wife, and you know what?—as Peter would say: “That’s just dandy with me.”
That was the beginning of a friendship that has lasted till today. Peter and I attended countless conventions together; I would stay at his brownstone every time I visited NYC; we listened to lots of jazz on his magnificent sound system; had lots great dinners in fine restaurants, and he graced our Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp as our Special Guest Instructor twice. I will greatly miss him and his immense talent.
 Yeah, clever title. I was so, so clever back then . . . .
 The “father” of Repairman Jack, F. Paul Wilson
 Or maybe not . . .