"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.
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.
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.