Monday, February 18, 2013

Mrs. God -- Peter Straub

Title: Mrs. God 
Author: Peter Straub 
Publishing Information: Published by Pegasus Crime, an imprint of Pegasus Books, LLC, New York (1990). 
Source: Science Fiction Book Club

Short Bio: (March 2, 1943 to present) As is succinctly stated on his website: “Peter Straub was born in Milwaukee, (Wisconsin)… the first of three sons of a salesman and a nurse. The salesman wanted him to become an athlete, the nurse thought he would do well as either a doctor or a Lutheran minister, but all he wanted to do was to learn to read.” This passion for the written word turned into a Godsend throughout his childhood, keeping his mind active and alive through the pain of recovery from a terrible car accident and the ridicule of dealing with a stutter, and carried him further into his early adulthood as he sought and obtained a B.A. in English from the University of Wisconsin and a MA from Columbia. At first he was drawn to teaching rather than writing, taking a post as a literature teacher at his alma mater, the Milwaukee Country Day School, but eventually, while in Ireland pursuing his Ph.D. (1969), he tried his hand at writing. During this period he wrote two books of poetry, Ishmael and Open Air, but eventually found the pull of narrative more to his liking.  His first book, Marriages, was published in 1973, after which he moved to London and wrote Under Venus (1974), Julia (1975), If You Could See Me Now (1977) and finally the novel we all know him for, Ghost Story (1979). In 1979 he moved to New York City where he lives to this day. Since the success of Ghost Story, Straub has written numerous short stories, poems, novellas and over ten novels, including two collaborations with Stephen King (The Talisman (1984) and Black House (2001)) and explored various literary devices such as metafiction* and the use of unreliable narrators (the "Blue Rose Trilogy" consisting of Koko (1988), Mystery (1990), and The Throat (1993)). He is the recipient of the August Derleth Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Locus Fantasy Award and the Bram Stoker Award.

*Metafiction: Fiction in which the subject of the story is the act or art of storytelling itself, especially when such material breaks up the illusion of "reality" in a work.  (

Comments on the Story: 
Mrs. God is the tale of a college professor, William Standish, caught in a triangle of disappointments: with his job at a second rate college, with his wife who had an affair, and with himself for not being able to produce the necessary critical essays required by his profession. Just as he is about to succumb to the pressures of his life, he receives a coveted Fellowship at an English manor house called Esswood, owned by the Seneschal family**. This ancient manor, to which few scholars have been invited, is reputed to have an incredible library full of the personal writings of the great, and not so great, modern writers who spent time there. As for Standish, he sees this as a prime opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: a) take a much needed break from the strain of his marriage and b) research the personal papers of his relative, Isobel Standish, a minor twentieth century poet whose only published work, Crack, Whack and Wheel, delved into the power of words by deconstructing language into only its essential parts. The latter he plans to turn into a series of essays and books which when published will ultimately save his career.

This is the story of a journey, both physical and psychological. On the surface, Standish is taking a perfectly normal trip to conduct research, something that every collegiate professor is expected to do, but below this lies an undercurrent of his shifting state of mind. Right from the start, it is apparent that Standish is unhappy in his life, and the narrative is rife with allusions to occurrences in his past. As the story progresses, these allusions are fleshed out to a certain extent, though the reliability as to their veracity comes into question as you realize that he is spiraling deeper and deeper into madness (good example of the use of an unreliable narrator). This realization comes near the end of the story, after Straub has cleverly deceived you into believing you are reading a dark and disturbing ghost story. However, after finishing the book, and looking back at all the clues, the descriptions of what Standish encounters can easily be viewed as the developing delusions of a megalomaniac. In the end, Standish peels back all the layers of his being and becomes the monster he perceives within, ultimately destroying not only himself in the process, but something ancient and beautiful as well. Out of destruction, creation. Out of deconstruction, the essence of life, though that life be twisted and wrought of pure evil.

A shorter version of Mrs. God originally appeared in a collection of Straub’s works called Houses Without Doors (1990). Since I have not read that version, I am not sure if the additional text in the standalone book adds or detracts from the overall story. Whatever the case may be, the version that I read gives the reader an impression of delving into a novel, with all the expected complexities of background and character development, but reads like a short story, and as such, I’m not sure that it really works. By the time I got to the last few chapters, I felt a creeping sense of disappointment come over me, not necessarily as to where the story was going, but more as to the pacing, which ultimately, and unfortunately, proved to me to be too abrupt. I felt that the story, as presented, was too complex to render as a short work. It felt to me as if Straub had simply gotten tired of the characters and decided to stop writing. All in all, though a very intriguing story, I cannot consider this an overall good read.

** I found it interesting that the name of the family, Seneschal, is actually a medieval word for a steward who was in charge of taking care of a lord’s estate. In a sense the Seneschals are the stewards of this incredible library, which ultimately, is the heart of the story. Also, the only people Standish actually meets at Esswood are the housekeeper and the caretaker of the library -- both stewards of the house.

 Additional Information: 
Following is a link to a review of Houses Without Doors written by Putney Tyson Ridge, Ph.D., a professor at Popham College. I include it because it gives a very distinct point of view on Straub, one that addresses Straub’s over inflated view of himself as a best-selling author. As for myself, while researching the Short Bio, I got a sense of this side of Straub, but I’m not completely convinced that when conducting interviews or otherwise describing himself he doesn’t simply have an overwrought sense of tongue in cheek humor. In any case, the article is worth reading if only for the lovely use of bitter sarcasm. 

Update Feb. 24, 2014: It was brought to my attention today by a reader, who was kind enough to send me an email on this post, that Putney Tyson Ridge is an alter ego of Straub's.  He did not exist.  I'm afraid I fell into the category of someone who did not do their research well enough.  For this, I apologize to you, dear reader.  In any case here are a few links confirming this new bit of information:

Websites used to prepare the Short Bio consist of:

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