Don’t feel so alone here in the middle ground, Ellen. If the bell curve is any indication, it should probably be pretty crowded here. Frankly, I’ve been a little surprised at the vitriolic backlash against Ghost Story, which I thought would be a pretty popular book-club choice, accessible and easy to discuss. I’d never read Peter Straub before (apart from the two Talisman books he co-authored with Stephen King), but I had somehow mentally conflated him with King and with John Saul, and I thought Ghost Story would be a relatively quick, pulpy, beachy kinda read.
So what I got instead sometimes stymied me and sometimes pleasantly surprised me. I take Ghost Story as more supernatural literary anthology than a novel—its best parts for me were often isolated stories that almost could have been removed from their settings and read separately, like Don’s opening-book cross-country journey, where it’s increasingly unclear who exactly is kidnapping whom. Or the first Fenny Bate story, which for me was the novel’s most chilling, riveting sequence. (Full disclosure: I’ve never read The Turn Of The Screw, so I wasn’t making mental comparisons.) Or Don’s college romance, which is allowed to play out at leisurely length. I loved all of these stories, and they pulled me in the way a good ghost story should.
But as with most anthologies, some parts are better than others, and where Ghost Story let me down was generally in the connective tissue, which is slacker than the stories it surrounds—particularly toward the end, when a direct, violent confrontation with Fenny and Gregory builds up a head of steam which Straub then permits to dissipate into a weak raspberry noise, as weeks pass with no further action or planning—just a lot of words about the desperation of the town, which strangely doesn’t seem to touch the protagonists. It was odd to be told that no groceries were coming in and no one could go out and supplies were running low and people were acting crazy, and then see Ricky and his friends spontaneously and without comment sit down to a massive steak dinner with all the trimmings. Logical lapses like that, or just places where I wanted something to happen, and instead got a long, wandering description of Milburn, took me out of the story far more often and more thoroughly than the sentence structure that bugged Leonard so much.
Frankly, the writing in Ghost Story rarely if ever bothered me. Leonard and I have established before that we just don’t get the same thing out of books, even when we both enjoy them, and here’s a perfect case in point: He couldn’t care about the story because the writing bothered him. I couldn’t care about the writing so long as I was enjoying the story. I’m not indifferent to bad writing—I had to put Dan Brown’s Angels And Demons down just a couple of chapters in because it was so poorly written that I couldn’t care less about all the big hooks it was trying to throw at me—but in this case… Well, if I’m running down a path on my way to a place I think I’m going to enjoy, I generally won’t notice if some of the individual paving stones are discolored or cracked, as long as I don’t actually trip on one. The celebratory steak dinner in a starving town tripped me up. So did the long bouts of downtime between actual confrontations with the evil plaguing Milburn. So did the “Gregory suddenly explains what he is” moment, which other people have rightly complained about as a demystifying disappointment that deflates the book before it’s ready.
But even so, I spent a lot of Ghost Story running, metaphorically. Early on, I recognized that Straub was laying out a framework of stories he planned to tell eventually, about how Don Wanderley ended up in that car with that kid, about Eva Galli and Edward’s party and what really happened to Lewis’ wife. That’s a lot of guns to hang up on one wall in act one, but the entire idea of the Chowder Society prepared me for the format of the book, a sequence of ghost stories that turned out to have a common source. And if nothing else, the promise of seeing those guns used would have been enough to keep me zipping along, waiting not for just one big reveal, but a sequence of them.
That said, other parts of the book were a frank slog. As has been repeatedly said, Straub was inspired by Stephen King, and Straub seems to be channeling him here, with his windy, bloviating, wandering tendencies as much as his propensity for small-town portraits and wacky colorful supporting characters and short, sharp shocks and parenthetical character thought processes. If Ghost Story hadn’t come first, I would have thought Straub used It as his Bible when writing this.
To briefly address some of Zack’s questions: Sadly, nothing in Ghost Story really frightened me the way It did. In part, that’s because I was much younger when I read It—to use Donna’s apt concept, I was in my Horror Phase, and the mental barriers between what Could Maybe Be vs. what Just Plain Isn’t Out There weren’t as high or as thick. Maybe if I’d come to it earlier in life, it would have scared me. Of course, back then I also would have missed the literary references, though frankly, I found those neither distracting nor particularly helpful; Straub seems to be acknowledging his inspirations, not trying to supplant them or brag about them. It was a non-issue for me.
As to Zack’s questions about where the early-book dreams come from, and why they show Ricky as being spared, that’s an excellent question. For me, it’s just another early gun on the wall—Straub implying that his villainess has a certain power over his protagonists, but that her power isn’t complete, which implies that in spite of all she says about her power, she can be fought. There’s more under heaven and earth than she’s taking into account. Maybe subconsciously, the men know enough to fill in the blanks of who’s going to die; they are, after all, characters in a story about stories, which implies a certain meta-quality. Maybe their own minds are working against her; maybe the story is.
But I personally think it’s just because she’s singled Ricky out as her “good enemy,” and she's putting on a show put on for his benefit, to sharpen him for the coming conflict. She wants both to save him from the mundane fates coming to the others, and to scare him more than she scares them. And for him, maybe being alone and the last survivor, knowing full well what happened to his friends and that he was powerless to stop it, would be scarier or more painful than just dying.
That strikes me as a pretty well-constructed story, one that a few awkward sentences and overlong passages can’t fully stymie. So while I didn’t love Ghost Story unreservedly, the way I might have at the height of my King phase, when I thought he could do no wrong, I can’t dismiss it out of hand. As with so much King, I think it could use a ruthless editor and a more consistent sense of pacing, but that all the elements of a great genre thriller are there, waiting to be found amid the tangles of descriptions and authorial musing.