For many readers, horror is a Period. It’s a time in your life, and usually a relatively early one, where you discovered books whose purpose was exploring the taboo and forbidden. You go through your Horror Period—aren’t there thousands of us, if not millions, who read Stephen King as a teenager and will never forget that feeling?—just as people sometimes go through a Fantasy Era, a Science Fiction Epoch, a Harlequin Summer. And then you grow up and get on with your life, and horror fiction doesn’t much figure into it. Maybe you kept on picking up the latest Stephen King for a decade or so, but eventually, it’s just not speaking to who you are as an adult.
If that happened to you, then it’s no surprise; horror is essentially rooted in the uncontrollable transitions of life, the moments when we suddenly sprout hair or hormones, or give birth to temporary succubi, or face down the end of life. Horror is about everything spiraling out of control, and our fear that we are not equipped for the onslaught of whatever’s coming. And so those of us in a more settled time of life might find it less than compelling.
I was excited to get back into Ghost Story because I remember reading it late in my horror period, and finding Straub’s more literary, less stream-of-consciousness approach a bit more mature and congenial than King’s pop-culture collages. And yet reading it now, I was shocked by how little any of it resonated with me. There was one exception, and that was the opening chapter. I was terrified by Don’s journey with the kidnapped girl, terrified what he was going to do to her… and therefore relieved and disappointed when she turned out to deserve it. Because the real horror is ordinary, everyday brutality and depravity, not supernatural forces beyond our ken. When Angie/Alma/A.M. revealed herself as something other than a frightened girl, I relaxed. This wouldn’t haunt my dreams, as the possibility of diseased psychopaths who might harm children because of their own demons or for no reason at all certainly would, and does. It was just a story, one that I could easily close and dismiss.
And that’s a problem rooted in me, not in the book. I recognize that the writing can be overdone and artless, as Leonard commented. I see some lovely structural touches, as Zack did. But I’m not in the market for manufactured thrills and chills these days. I’ve got enough to worry about with the horrors and disasters and impending apocalypses of the real world; no need to speculate about the Manitou or dwell on grisly deaths and reanimations.
If I had to ground one criticism in the book itself rather than in my personal failure to connect to it, I’d say that it’s not nearly enough fun. There’s a pretentiousness and heaviness to most of it—witness the showy shifts in point of view when Don enters the story as a narrator—that is rendered all too evident by the stories told by the Chowder Society, which generally lack all these touches and just get on with it. Collect those into a little novella, and you’ve got something. Tie them all together and force the characters to talk about focus and forces and dreams and monsters from the id and so forth, and you’ve got a real problem with suspension of disbelief. Doesn’t Straub take everything way too seriously? Doesn’t that old-fashioned—moralism would be one word for it—distance us from the existential dread he wants to shove in our faces?
I was looking forward to this installment of Wrapped Up In Books because I thought the book might appeal more to my sweet tooth. A bestseller, a genre book, something I knew I’d enjoyed at some point in my life; the perfect antidote for heavy literature, I thought. But instead I felt like I was eating my veggies all the way through. I know that books don’t have to be fun to be worth your time. But what’s the point of popular horror fiction if there’s no element that makes you look forward to turning the pages?