Houses without Doors is Peter Straub’s first collection of short stories from 1990 and also my first dip into the author’s bibliography. Sure, I have the classic novels like Floating Dragon or Ghost Story on the shelves, but somehow I never got around to them. Straub always felt slightly too literary, too good a writer, and that intimidated me, perhaps a remnant in my memory of all those reading assignments at school. Reading Straub, I thought, would be a chore.
How wrong I was. Houses without Doors is for the most part horror, really well-written, enjoyable horror. The collection consists of five longer stories as well as one shorter piece, along with short interludes between the stories. The first proper cut, “Blue Rose”, is a story about young Harry and his little brother Eddie in the 1950s. Harry learns hypnotism from a book and soon enough he’s experimenting with his brother in the attic. The tension the reader feels just keeps escalating, until it spills over well beyond the confines of the short novel. “Blue Rose” is a nasty, uncomfortable story, and its effect lingers.
The second piece, “The Juniper Tree”, is a story about a boy who gets molested at a movie theatre. It’s more subtle than “Blue Rose”, and certainly more realistic, but easily as effective. The third story, “A Short Guide to the City” is told by an omniscient narrator describing a midwestern city where some murders have recently been committed by a so-called viaduct-killer. There’s no plot, simply observations, sometimes snarky, about the city and its inhabitants in an almost Ligottian tone.
“The Buffalo Hunter” and “Mrs. God” are novella-length pieces that complete the collection. Both are excellent works that really cement Straub’s quality in my mind. “The Buffalo Hunter” describes the life of a hapless computer worker named Bob Bunting who discovers a way to disappear into the paperback novels he’s reading. He’s a fantastic, well-developed character, who feeds his elderly parents lies about an imaginary Swiss girlfriend and collects baby bottles, which he uses to decorate his apartment and drink vodka in bed without spilling the liquid. He’s kind of a horror version of Walter Mitty, who gets lost in imaginary worlds with tragic consequences.
“Mrs. God” is Straub’s tribute to Robert Aickman, and tells the story of William Standish, a researcher who receives a stipend to work at a prestigious but mysterious Esswood manor in merry old England, inhabited only by its unseen elderly owners and strange caretakers who come and go. It’s almost a classic haunted house novel, with Standish wandering alone around the old, crumbling estate and its grounds and putting together the pieces of the story of his ancestor, who also stayed and mysteriously died in the house.
In addition to the longer stories there are short interludes or vignettes between them, as well as a short, experimental story “Something About a Death, Something About a Fire” – which I assume was about a death and a fire…? But it’s the long pieces which are the winners here. If there’s a common thread running through these stories it’s that most of the protagonists are unlikable people, some of them completely unhinged. While the stories aren’t all that action-packed, they are never boring, always digging away at some psychological insight that feels both new and just right. Some of the stories are fairly straightforward and should please any reader of horror, while some are more subtle and their effect is slightly more insidious. Based on this collection’s offerings, from now on I’ll happily and confidently look forward to Straub’s other works.