In Straub’s fiction, Milwaukee streets are turned into brutal dangerous back-alleys with blood-stained concrete, and the rural wilderness of Wisconsin becomes a haunted wasteland of unnatural creatures and lost souls.
Here are seven of Straub’s books to page through on a dark and stormy night:
Let’s start in everyone’s favorite college town – Madison. And now let’s go to every long-haired flower child’s favorite decade – the 1960s. The UW-Madison campus is frolicking through the Age of Aquarius. It’s a time of protest, free love, and unshaved armpits, and a charismatic guru named Spencer Mallon has amassed a discipleship devoted to his spiritualism and good vibes. But one night, Mallon takes his followers out to a field far from campus to enact an ungodly ritual. No one quite remembers exactly what occurred that night, but there was enough blood and bone left behind to know it wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences. Forty years later, one of Mallon’s old followers, Lee Harwell, sets out to uncover what really happened during that strange ceremony, and gradually learns what horrid things were unleashed on him and his old friends.
Miles Teagarden, a fancy-pants east coast English professor, is struggling to complete his doctoral dissertation, so he decides to flee to his grandmother’s hometown of Arden, Wisconsin to write in peace and solitude. He arrives, buckles down and successfully writes his dissertation without incident and leaves having enjoyed a pleasant Midwestern summer. Just kidding. His wife drowns, he keeps having hallucinations, he’s obsessed with his beautiful cousin Allison, his childhood is full of dark secrets and strange oaths, a bunch of women get murdered in Arden and people think he did it, etc.
This one’s mostly set in Vermont. I include it on the list, because it still has a memorable dose of Wisconsin in the form of a fictionalized version of Milwaukee Country Day School, Straub’s alma mater. The two main characters, Tom Flanagan and Del Nightingale become best friends during their time at the boarding school. It’s not a flattering portrayal of the private school lifestyle, which comes off as rather tyrannical and unpleasant, but the horrors of high school pale in comparison to the main plot of the novel, which deals with Del’s uncle, a sorcerer who plunges the boys into the world of dark arts.
This novel won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1989. So if you like fantasies and/or the world, this one is for you. A series of brutal ritualistic murders – eyes removed and what not, you know the kind – occur in far east Asia, with each victim sporting a playing card between the lips reading “Koko.” Meanwhile, in Washington DC, four members of a Vietnam platoon reunite. They believe they know who the killer is – an old member of the platoon who disappeared during their time in the jungle. Halfway through the novel, the characters have to visit Milwaukee to continue their investigation. Straub spoke about this section in an interview with Nightmare Magazine. “When the book was reviewed in the Milwaukee papers, the Milwaukeeans were very, very unhappy because I made the place sound like a sewer, and I made them sound like block-heads and half-savage; so thereafter, I took the liberty of locating Milwaukee anywhere I liked, calling it anything I liked as long as it was pretty close to Milwaukee, and populating it with whatever universities, apartment buildings, hotels, bars, were useful for me.” So you might not be flattered by the portrayal of our fair city in the book, but hey, it’s still better than another book set in New York.
Speaking of fake versions of Milwaukee, this novel is set in Millhaven, Illinois, a fictionalization that allows Straub to do what he wants with Milwaukee. This novel follows one of Straub’s ongoing characters, a novelist named Timothy Underhill, who arrives in Millhaven to investigate the disappearance of his nephew following his sister’s suicide. Things get worse. There’s a pedophile serial killer on the loose, and some ghosts, and some childhood trauma to revisit. So all in all maybe it’s for the best that this one isn’t set in Milwaukee.
Black House is Straub’s second collaboration with the Big Man Chief Overlord Best-Selling Killer Clown Prince of Horror Novels Stephen King, the first being The Talisman. This is a sequel that follows up on the story of Jack Sawyer, who was 12 at the time of the first novel. He’s now a grown man and an LAPD detective to boot, and he’s mostly repressed his memories from The Talisman, so that gives you an opening to skip that book and just jump in here. Jack has to travel to French Landing, Wisconsin, a fictional version of Trempealeau, where a serial killer has been brutally serial killing children in the style of real-life murderer Albert Fish, who was quite the bad egg.
At this point maybe you’re getting tired of all the child murders and the blood and the evil spirits intent on tearing your soul from your flesh. If not, I’m a little concerned for you. So here’s a reprieve. Straub wrote a book of non-fiction essays about writing, his life, and even about Milwaukee. If you want to read his take on the city, take a dip into this book – specifically the essay “My Fantasy of Everyday Life.”