Reminder: We'll be discussing Peter Straub's Ghost Story here via livechat on Thursday, October 29, at 3:30 CST. Look for a link here on Thursday, and come join us.
“Ricky’s sagacious little jowls were taut with impatience.”
What does it mean when we call someone a good writer? Although it’s a question beyond the scope of our discussion of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, I keep returning to it again and again. There has been, at least since the turn of the 20th century—the novel’s century—a lively debate, echoed in criticisms of other art forms, over what we should value in literature. For some, it’s storytelling; the mastery of plot and idea, the ability to come up with a notion so inherently compelling that readers can’t help but keep up. Beside this ability, style is merely a collection of fripperies. For others, style is everything; even a child can come up with a good idea for a story, but what makes a writer is the ability to tell it well, to craft the raw hunk of plot into a collection of sentences that contain the author’s art. What a story is about is far less important than the way it’s told.
It’s no secret that we’ve got advocates for both camps here in the Wrapped Up In Books staff, and among the commentariat as well. It’s likewise no secret that I’m in the latter school. While I’m occasionally able to give in to the allure of a well-constructed story driven by its plot and lacking in accomplished prose, I usually find such books—which, I don’t think it’s controversial to say, are the sort that populate the upper echelons of the bestseller lists—pretty tedious and dull. Stephen King, whose novels Ghost Story much resembles, and who offers the frankly ludicrous front-cover assessment that its “terror just mounts and mounts,” is an exemplar of this: He’s certainly an important writer, one of the most important of modern American writers, and I cannot deny his mastery of story. But his prose is so bloated, so self-parodically true to its type, that I usually find it not worth the investment of time.
That proved to be true in spades with Ghost Story. It’s the only book of Peter Straub’s I’ve ever read other than his collaborations with King, and if its quality is any indication, it will be the last. I tried so very hard to like it, as I’ve tried so hard to give King the benefit of the doubt by trying to believe there’s something wrong with me, even though his writing keeps falling into the same pitfalls through one thousand-page mammoth after another. But Ghost Story steadfastly resisted my goodwill. After a promising start—the journey through the south of Don Wanderley with a sinisterly affectless young girl, his fate literally tied to hers—it just went downhill, and not even fast.
I couldn’t like the book even beyond the lousy writing. Even if it didn’t deliver clangingly wrong sentences like the one above every half-dozen pages (“‘We were in a sort of sexless, pre-Freudian paradise,’ Ricky finally said. ‘In an enchantment.’”), it clunked along in a dozen other ways. The dialogue, when it wasn’t perfectly suited to the way no one ever speaks, was thuddingly obvious, with characters describing actions they are about to take, forever violating the show-don’t-tell rule to no particular end. Those characters, aside from the main ones, are often crudely sketched-out caricatures: The town of Milburn seems rife with cold-hearted, promiscuous women and farmers who are the most rusticated bumpkins imaginable. There’s the clever, self-impressed writer, an authorial stand-in comprising another element from the Stephen King playbook; even the Chowder Society members are dull, if not entirely predictable. The only character who brings any life to the narrative is Jim Hardie, and we’re clearly supposed to hate him.
Even all this—the stock characters, the barely functional dialogue, the rattling of the terrible prose (“She smiled at me, still with expectation kindling in her face.”)—could have been tolerable if Ghost Story delivered on its promise of being scary. But with a few exceptions—and they came way too far apart—the horrors were too tame, and fatally separated with dozens of pages of nothing happening. After the gripping intro, I failed to be moved by the tale of Fenny Bate and his dead incestuous sodomite brother, and Ricky Hawthorne’s night terrors and the mysterious voices telling Dr. Jaffrey to go jump in the river likewise didn’t do much for me, so I had to wait until almost 300 pages in for the fate of insurance salesman Freddy Robinson to give me a frisson. And after that, what? A… a Manitou? An improvement, I suppose, on some of the other oddly racist or misogynist manifestations of terror in the book (the hostile female ghosts and Don’s bizarre minstrel-show conception of Dr. Rabbitfoot), but 500 pages is a hell of a long time to wait for someone to swat a wasp.
There’s a temptation to call this sort of ultra-padded, repetitive writing hackwork, but hacks are paid by the word; there’s a reason they take forever getting to the point. I couldn’t figure out what Straub’s excuse was, unless it was laziness, or worse yet, pomposity—it’s easy to get the feeling that Stephen King thinks his books are more impressive the higher the page count gets. For as much as I thought, “Well, maybe I’m being too harsh because this sort of book isn’t for me,” that’s not really the case; I’m a huge fan of pulp writers, even in the horror genre. Robert Howard and H.P. Lovecraft are favorites of mine. But they shared a quality with people like Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson that Straub entirely lacks: their prose isn’t fancy, gilded trickery of the sort that impresses me, but it’s also not fat and gaseous like Ghost Story. Their writing is lean, economical; nothing is wasted, and everything moves. Straub’s writing here is overstuffed and slow-footed. It’s the definition of junk literature, because it reads like you’ve filled up on tortilla chips: You’re bloated, but you haven’t really gotten anything out of the meal.
As much as I tried to get into Ghost Story, I ended up not appreciating it on any level. It wasn’t great literature, because it was told in a forgettable way and contained no great moral lessons, emotional revelations, philosophical epiphanies, or moments of transcendence. And it wasn’t great entertainment, because its characters were dull, its dialogue had no snap, it utterly lacked style, and its lurid moments of sex and violence took too long to arrive and left too little of an imprint when they were over. The longer the book dragged on, the harder it was for me to believe that I just didn’t possess the proper critical perspective to bring to bear on something like Ghost Story, and the easier it was for me to think that it was just a crappy, second-rate horror novel.
At one point, there came such a perfect example of the way the book ground at me that it was the closest I ever got to an epiphany. After the death of John Jaffrey, Sears James waxes skeptical over the eyewitness account of the conveniently positioned town wino, Omar Norris. “‘That ponderous, unthinkable oaf,’ Sears rumbled. ‘As if you could believe Omar Norris on any subject except bourbon and snowplows.’” Which passage, since the only things Straub has chosen to tell us about Omar is that he’s a) a drunk and b) the operator of the town’s snowplow, is a sort of perfect storm of pointlessness and clumsiness. That’s when I decided “Sorry, Peter Straub. I think we need to see other people. And it’s not me; it’s you.”