Friday, April 1, 2011

Ghost Story by Peter Straub (1979): Old Man Take a Look at Your Life

"What was the worst thing you've ever done?"
"I won't tell you that, but I'll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me... the most dreadful thing..."

What more bewitching words could a horror fan want as the opening lines of a novel? There is no doubt that Peter Straub intended his breakthrough bestselling third book to be a summation and continuance of its literary forebears. Straub consciously evoked those great ghost-story tellers of antiquary: Poe, M.R. James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Ambrose Bierce, and the like. A reader doesn't have to be familiar with those writers to enjoy Ghost Story, not at all (I've really only a passing acquaintance with them myself) but I'm sure anyone who is will find Straub's allusions done with skill and respect. Just as much as Stephen King's bestselling horror novels of that day, Ghost Story, a critical and commercial success, ushered in the great era of '80s horror. Few modern horror novels can compare with its ambitions.

Back cover of 1980 Pocket Books edition

In fictional Milburn, a small town in upstate New York that's soon to be under siege by a terrifying Christmas blizzard, the members of the Chowder Society meet over whiskey and cigars to keep one another company as age creeps up on them: Frederick "Ricky" Hawthorne, Sears James, Lawrence Benedikt, John Jaffrey, and, till his death one year prior, Edward Wanderley. They are bound by a past more important than their present, a past some 50 years gone but that includes dead women and feral children. Nightmares have become prevalent for all the men since Edward's utterly unexpected death at a party for a beautiful young actress named Ann-Veronica Moore (Edward was a celebrity ghost writer - heh). Ghost stories have become their means of passing time, but they find in the town around them - and in Edward's fear-stricken face in death - hints that their past, their unholy past, is catching up with them. In distress, they write to Edward's nephew Donald Wanderley, who is, of all things, a horror writer.

Pocket Books 1994 reprint

Now I love horror fiction about horror writers! Don's novel Nightwatchers impresses the Chowder Society and is the impetus for their letter asking for aid (I'm their Van Helsing, Don wryly notes). Although this aspect isn't fully developed as it could have been, Don's creative faculties play into what happens later in the novel; it gets rather meta as the book comes full circle. He must tell a story, of course, to gain the old men's trust, and his past also reveals a relationship with a strange woman... who leaves him to be in a relationship with Don's brother David, who ends up dead. Don suspects this woman, Alma Mobley, of the worst, but can prove nothing. When the Chowder Society, or what's left of it, finally tells him the story of Eva Galli, an improbably beautiful and vexing woman they knew in their youth, and of her wretched fate, Don realizes she was a kind of shape-shifter, perhaps even our old friend the manitou. Indeed, Straub gives us a ghost, a werewolf, and a vampire, of sorts: all the horror essentials. She, and her minions, have come back, and the men are now launched into a time when madness offered a truer picture of events than sanity.

2001 Pocket Books edition. Meh.

Straub spins out his long novel in short chapters, mostly, crisscrossing between characters that, early on, can be confusing. I simply wrote the character names on my bookmark, a habit I picked up when plowing through the Russian novels I used to read before the internet came along. Once the characters came into focus for me I found Ghost Story a rich and very readable novel; Straub's style is literary without being pretentious or ostentatious, his ability to create and populate a believable setting is really second to King's if not, at times, the equal. 'Salem's Lot is, without doubt, its structural model, which is interesting: Straub is linking the great old ghost stories of yesteryear with modern large-scale horror storytelling. And while it works, I wasn't as emotionally invested in the novel as I was with his Floating Dragon. It's chilling and chilly, despite its rich tapestry of character and psychology, and remains just at a distance. This certainly could have been an intentional effect on Straub's part.

There is so much going on in Ghost Story I can only sketch out a few details that struck me as essential. Pay particular attention to the vague prologue and epilogue about a man and a little girl; they are of an illuminating piece. The vengeful manifestations of Eva Galli all take names with the initials A.M., which I'm supposing should make you think of identity, as in "I am." The old American ghost stories located the inherent sin and guilt of humanity in the wild woods of New England; this is where Lewis Benedikt confronts a deadly fantasy of his life's guiltiest moment. There is Sears James's astonishing story of the nightmarish little boy Fenny Bate, as filthy and ignorant as our most prehistoric forebears, who evokes his pity but ensures his doom. Other inhabitants of Milburn will meet frigid, horrid deaths as they pay for a sin that was not theirs, against which they have no defense, but is as much a part of the landscape as the fields and forests. Could you defeat a cloud, a dream, a poem?

Lovely UK cover art by Tom Adams (thanks to Trashotron)

As its rudimentary title implies, Ghost Story wants to be an urtext of horror, encompassing all the stories that have come before it... and that will come after it. One supernatural battle takes place in a movie theater showing the first modern horror film, Night of the Living Dead. The striking similarity to 'Salem's Lot and, in one tiny reference in the epilogue, to The Shining, is intentional; old and new in one story. The shape-shifting obscenities that terrorize Milburn and the Chowder Society have been with us forever: You are at the mercy of your human imaginations, and when you look for us, you should always look in the places of your imagination... where we make up stories to exorcise demons, but we forget who those demons are. In these tales within tales, characters within characters, mirrors within mirrors, the conceit is that which haunts us is only ourselves: I am a ghost.


Branden said...

I read this book last summer/fall, and absolutely loved it. I picked up Floating Dragon based on your recommendation, and the fact that I enjoyed Ghost Story so much, so I need to read that. But your recent review of The Shining has me craving giving that a first read. Unfortunately I will have to wait a few weeks to start either because of classes. This summer I hope to get through one or the other, though. Great review.

Elias Siqueiros said...

Ghost Story is the horror story at its finest.

peelslowlynsee said...

Boy, this book did a number on me back in 1981, when I was in the 8th grade. I've been meaning to re-read it for years. One of these days, maybe after I've thrown out my computer and TV, I'll get to it!

Thanks for a great reminder of how compelling a book it is.

I think the prologue is an incredible way to start a book. The imagery of their silence in the car and the mood at the motel, etc., is so graphic. I've never been able to shake that.

William Malmborg said...

I read this one in high school and remember enjoying it. I followed it up with several of his early novels like Julia, Shadowland, and If You Could See Me Now, but then for some reason stopped reading him. Floating Dragon is one that I never ended up sitting down with even though I have it, so now I may have to give it a try. People also have told me The Throat is reall good.

Rabid Fox said...

Read this last year for the first time. @#$%ing brilliant. Though, I still rank Shadowland as my fave Straub novel so far. Ghost Story runs close second.

Anonymous said...

Wow Will, you're on a roll.
As I've mentioned before once or twice, I'm a rather rare re-reader with only a few of my MOST favs receiving that honor & here within the space of about three or four posts, you've hit on two of them in THE SHINING & now, GHOST STORY. True masterpieces both IMHO.

Anonymous said...

Mr Malmborg,
Straub's THE THROAT is, indeed, one of his VERY best & the highlight of his Blue Rose Trilogy of novels begun in KOKO & followed by his underrated MYSTERY.
By all means give them a shot, I think you'll become totally engrossed in them & chilled by the fiend from whom I take my name.

( aka bluerosekiller )

William Malmborg said...

Thanks Jim. I shall read The Throat next then since I am between books right now and it is simply sitting on my shelf waiting. I enjoyed Koko a few years back, but was unaware that it was just the beginning of more.

Midnyte Reader said...

Wow, this was such a well written review. I saw the movie when I was small and it was very creepy to me. I usually don't read books where I know what it going to happen, but maybe I'll give this one a try.

Tim Mayer said...

I'm going to be the lone dissenter here and say that I never could "get" all the fuss over Straub's GHOST STORY. I read an advance edition of it in 1978 and just thought there were too many loose ends in the book.

highwayknees said...

Well please don't go by the movie version.It has nothing to do with the book ,except as a small outline of one facet! This is meta-horror folks! I can still recall the thrill of devouring this one when it came out back in 81, was it? Fenny Bates !!!Brrrrr! A certifiable classic, this one is! And one of the pure joys of my horror reading history!

Matt Bradshaw said...

With the exception of The Talisman I've never read any Straub. I saw the the movie version of Ghost Story when it played theaters but haven't seen it since. I'm betting I've forgotten enough of the film to make reading to the book worthwhile. Last I checked it wasn't available as an ebook, so it looks like a tree will have to die for me to check this one out.

Chris said...

You're not alone, Tim. I simply don't get the love for this book. Perhaps I'm just not the right audience. I'm a huge horror fiction fan but I can count on one hand the number of horror novels I truly love. Shorter fiction does the most for me. Ghost Story struck me as bloated and fundamentally unscary, lacking in atmosphere.

opinionatedfaisal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
opinionatedfaisal said...

Tim/Chris, I am with both of you, having read most of Straub's novels, I confess, I found all of them pretentious and teasers at best. There are always too many loose ends in a Straub novel, and the most interesting part is the synopsis on the back cover that always persuades me to spend time with another Straub novel, hopeful that maybe this time he would be able to tell a story that's as exciting as promised by the synopsis. But no luck till his latest "Dark Matter", which was as windy as all that came before.

AL Fetherlin said...

"Ghost Story" was one of the books I read during study hall while I was supposed to work on homework (which never got done thanks to the library) along with "It" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
This was about 20 years ago. I loved it. I bought it at a rummage sale a few years back and have been meaning to re-read it. I believe I haven't yet, because I'm afraid my childish mind loved it and my adult, horror-writing mind will not.
I think I will pull it off the shelf and read it now that this review reminded me of the fun I had with Ricky, Sears and the others.

jeremy said...

I would recommend his recent novella "A Special Place : the Heart of a Dark Matter" to get you going....also a good segue into his "Dark Matter" novel. "A Special Place" reminds me quite a bit of Joyce Carol Oate's fictional account of Dahmer entitled "Zombie". Some great reads here.