Horror heavyweights put fright into Coulee Region

Horror heavyweights put fright into Coulee Region

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Peter Straub has been a best-selling horror author for more than 25 years, with books like "Ghost Story" selling millions of copies.

But the Milwaukee native has never forgotten his Wisconsin roots - particularly the summers he spent as a child on his grandparents' farm near Arcadia, Wis. That farm, owned by his mother's parents, Julius and Clara Nilsestuen, is still in the family, and Straub returns for family reunions.

"It is really beautiful," Straub said about the Coulee Region. "I always looked forward to going to Arcadia and the La Crosse area."

Thanks to his new book "Black House," a collaboration with Stephen King that is a sequel to their best-selling 1984 book "The Talisman," the Coulee Region will be revealed to millions of readers who have never heard of this corner of the world. The book revolves around a series of gruesome murders that take place in western Wisconsin.

Local readers will quickly pick up the references to the World's Largest Six-Pack, the Mississippi River, Hwy. 35 and 93 and variations of La Crosse (La Riviere) Trempealeau (French Landing) and Arcadia (Arden).

Straub said the idea to base the book in western Wisconsin actually came from King, who for most of his career has set his books in his home state of Maine.

"He suggested Wisconsin just out of the blue," Straub said. "He said we ought to set this in the place where your mother came from and where all your cousins live. He wanted us to fly to La Crosse and rent a car and drive around the area. That would have been delightful. I would have introduced him to my cousins and they would have been thrilled."

But before the two horror heavyweights could do their Coulee Region scouting mission, King was involved in a serious accident in 1999 when he was struck by a van while walking along a road. So Straub wrote the first 50 pages of the book, setting the scene and landscape.

"Black House" takes place in French Landing, where the local police force struggles to solve murders by a killer dubbed "The Fisherman." The police chief asks Jack Sawyer, the boy who 20 years earlier in the "Talisman" saved the world by his travels into a parallel universe, to help in solve the case. Sawyer took an early retirement from Los Angeles police department and lives near Tamarack, Wis., in Norway Valley, the same location in real life where Straub spent his childhood summers.

Straub said he took some liberties with the names of the communities, which gave he and King freedom to "play loose with the geography." One of Straub's earlier novels, "If You Could See Me Now," also was set in Arden.

Straub's father, Gordon, lived in West Salem while his mother, Elvina, was a resident at Lakeview Health Center. She died in 1990. Straub said he visited La Crosse frequently when his father was hospitalized here. Gordon died in 1999.

"Black House" was written with each author putting together 50 to 100 pages of copy, which they would e-mail to each other. Straub estimates the book was truly a 50-50 proposition. While readers may notice the author's distinct styles, sometimes Straub said he's not sure who wrote what.

"When most people guess, they guess wrong," Straub said. "The other day my wife was reading a certain chapter and she said it was really good and must have been Steve. No, I said, that was me."

Straub said some King fans will blame parts of the book they don't like on him. "They did the same thing with 'The Talisman.' I had people accusing me of having written all the boring parts."

Straub said his writing is more formal than King's and he takes more time setting up the plot. "Steven is a lot more immediate than I am. It's a real gift. If every writer could do it, a lot of them would. The reader feels like there is no filter between himself and the book."

The killer in the book is based on the real-life killer Albert Fish. Straub said he had read a book about Fish and King saw a documentary about the killer. So when King suggested they use a reincarnation of Fish for the book, Straub was more than ready.

Straub, who lives in New York, said people in Wisconsin, especially rural Wisconsin, are "polite, easy-going and friendly."

"If they invite you over to their house they really mean it. They want to give you their hospitality. They are offended by rudeness, instead of cheered up with it like a lot of New Yorkers are."

Straub hopes Coulee Region residents enjoy "Black House" despite its gruesome premise. "It represents a very loving and appreciative view of that region," he said. "I hope the affection I feel for the area around La Crosse and Arcadia comes through loud and clear in the book."

Chris can be reached at chardie@lacrossetribune.com or (608) 791-8218.

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