Peter Straub,
Pork Pie Hat
(Orion, 1999)

A young graduate student and jazz fan discovers that one of his favorite jazz saxophonists, Pork Pie Hat, is still alive and scheduled to play at a nearby Greenwich Village club. He goes to the club, and is mesmerized by the way Hat improvises simple melodies into haunting sonnets of love and grief. He wants to find out how this beauty happens and tries to research Hat's life, but finds nothing. He goes back to the club and asks Hat for an interview. Surprisingly, the somewhat aloof Hat agrees.

A few weeks later, on Halloween night, the student meets Hat at an artists' hotel and tries to do a standard who-what-when-why-how interview. But Hat is not the most reality-based person and improvises the scene into a rambling narrative of an extraordinary and terrifying event that occurred when Hat, then age 11, celebrated Halloween by going with a friend into the backwoods of Mississippi, to an area frequented by prostitutes, moonshiners, drug users and other dangerous types. The two boys see things they should not see, and seeing those things puts their lives in jeopardy.

A few years after the interview, Hat dies, and the student does some more digging, and finds some amazing clarification of Hat's improvised story.

To date, I had read only one other work by Peter Straub, his eerie and unforgettable Floating Dragon. Pork Pie Hat shows the same mastery of character development, setting description, realistic narrative and nearly-unreal events. The story related by Hat is distorted both by the fear he felt at 11 and by the old man's desire to maintain some privacy and distance from his own past. This novella is a tale well-told, of events both strange and terrifyingly real. It is a ghost story, but not about ghosts-who-are-dead-people, but about how memories can haunt and affect one's entire life.

by Chris McCallister
15 July 2006

Buy it from