“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
(Don’t worry. You don’t really need to tell me. I’d prefer not to have a list of foul deeds in the comments box.)
But it does make you think, doesn’t it? It’s a suitably haunting question for a novel entitled Ghost Story, and it is one of the central questions at the heart of Peter Straub’s magnum opus.
How bad is your worst? And what if your worst came back to haunt you?
You might recognize Mr. Straub’s name from his collaborations with Stephen King; namely, 1984’s The Talisman and the 2001 sequel Black House.
This one, however, is all Straub.
First published in 1979, Ghost Story follows four older men residing in the seemingly innocuous town of Milburn, New York. After a terrible accident(?) in their youth, these older men (collectively dubbed “The Chowder Society”), are haunted by the malevolent manifestations of their past.
Upon beginning the novel, I was first struck by Straub’s writing ability. Though perhaps not the expert plotter that King is (more on that later), Straub’s prose strikes me as more sophisticated, and his scares are nearly as good. Many consider Ghost Story his crowning achievement, and I can see why. Simply put, it’s undeniably creepy. The titular ghost stories raise goosebumps on your neck and make it difficult to fall asleep.
Thankfully, Straub relies on atmosphere and subtlety to frighten the reader rather than on gore and semi-pornography. I always appreciate this sort of take on the genre, because oftentimes the latter is merely shocking, not horrifying. Ghost Story’s horror is the kind that sneaks up on you in a dark hallway, not the kind that jumps out at you right away, naked and anally mutilated (sorry Human Centipede).
Another strength of the novel is its characterization. There are numerous townspeople in Milburn, and Straub carefully developes each one. When these characters die (and, spoiler, a bunch of them do), we feel even more terror because it seems like it’s happening to real people. Furthermore, most of these characters are easy to relate to, so we can’t help but put ourselves in their shoes. When we do that, the real terror starts to set in.
Of course, nothing is perfect, and Ghost Story is not without shortcomings. While the seemingly unrelated elements of the first half come together nicely, I feel that the narrative looses a bit of steam by the end. There are too many repeated scenes of people being murdered and townsfolk seeing apparitions. Also, there are far too many confrontations with the ghosts that end without a payoff. Generally speaking, some events in the middle narrative seem to lack forward motion.
In addition, a few of the characters’ deaths rub me the wrong way. I won’t say who, but two central characters die in the middle and later stages of the book, yet we do not actually read their deaths. Straub brings us to the literal moment before they die, then pulls us away before we actually see it. I’m not expecting a shower of gore here. It just feels a bit cheap to me, like watching a movie and realizing that a vital scene has been cut. Show, don’t tell. Right?
Despite these flaws, the narrative recovers gracefully by the end. The climax is certainly climactic, and I like the bookend structure of the prologue and epilogue. By the time you reach the end, the stalled points in the narrative and the shoddy character deaths can more or less be forgiven.
Ghost Story is a high-quality tale that provides plentiful scares. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it one of the greatest horror novels of all time–but it’s definitely a fine read.
P.S.: Has anyone see the 1981 film adaptation of the same name? Please feel free to comment and let me know if it’s worth watching!