Wow, it feels a little lonely here in the middle ground. After I finished Ghost Story, I primarily felt let down by the ending, which I’ll get to in a second. But mostly, I thought “Hey, that was fun.” Leonard, I understand exactly where you’re coming from, because whenever I slowed down to take in the scenery, I picked up on the clunky language. But I wasn’t tempted to slow down that much, because for me, the suspense of not knowing who or what was after the Chowder Society was enough. From Don’s tale of the beautiful Alma Mobley onward, I tore through Ghost Story. I didn’t find its concept of the manitou particularly scary, but it gave me a few chills, and that was enough to bring me back to my own Horror Period, which took place mostly in a musty summer-camp library accompanied by the terrifying slams of over-sprung screen doors. It isn’t often these days I take the time to swerve out of genre in search of chills like this.
At the risk of defending Straub by attacking him, I wondered if the repetitious, occasionally awkward language with which he describes the seemingly idyllic town if Millburn wasn’t intentional: If these men are storytellers, they’re definitely not professionals, because no pro would stop in the middle of “My Pupil, The Shapeshifter” to outline just how cheap the couple he was boarding with was. And Don Wanderley lucked into his novel The Nightwatcher by transcribing his personal tragedy; the concept of Dr. Rabbitfoot sounds passé, racist and just not very creative. (His appearance at the end of the book proves this, I think.) That’s why it didn’t surprise me when the literary references didn’t really go anywhere; I treated them as nods from the author, acknowledging that other authors had employed harmless-looking New England (and the secret sins of its residents) as a stage before, not really valuable additions to the plot.
One theory I wanted to float was that Straub prepares readers for the idea of a shapeshifting spirit that jumps among identities and time periods with what seems like an abnormal fixation on clothing and what characters are wearing. From Ricky’s realization at the beginning of the book that he owns as many clothes as his wife (which come in handy when he’s traipsing through a snow-locked Millburn) to the horror of Eva Galli taking off her clothes in front of the members of what would become the Chowder Society, the author is always pausing to note a jacket sleeve or the hat that makes Sears James look like a character in an Andrew Wyeth painting. Don Wanderley even buys the girl he’s taken captive new clothes at the beginning, before he’s even decided what to do with her. Why does the Chowder Society insist on getting dressed up for their meetings? It’s their way of marking to each other that those discussions are Serious Business, a belief (or a conceit) that compounds their trouble later on when they encounter the “real-life” Gregory and Fenny Bate. Don notices about Alma that, in looks and bearing, she could appear to fit in anywhere, unlike the Chowder Society, who even in their own hometown look faintly ridiculous. While we are mortal, we can change, but no matter how Eva/Alma/Anna disguises itself, its ill will radiates through.
I was a little let down as well by the revelation of what happened to Eva Galli, though I’d scale up Zack’s “naïve twerps” a few notches. I understand why the men felt they needed to hide her body after it happened, and I bought that the deception unleashed this unspeakable evil on the world, but—why didn’t they just leave her? (Like they taught us in elementary school: Say no, get away, and tell someone.) The other incarnations of the manitou exhibit this same forward behavior: Anna Mostyn demands and gets a job from James, Hawthorne, even when there’s no work for her to do; Alma attaches herself to Don, who has no qualms about ditching his nerdy friend-with-benefits to jump into bed with her, then steals his thunder by disappearing just as he’s about to break it off, and making a play for his brother. At least these women had some autonomy compared with Stella, whose role in the book is purely reactive—no men’s club without a nagging wife, I guess. And the Chowder Society rips on the Milly Sheehan method of staying home and doing nothing in the face of unspeakable evil, but it’s not clear why that’s such a bad strategy, considering that she survives ’til the end of the book. If Straub had pushed this conceit an inch further, I would be objecting to the plot as metaphor for modern battle of the sexes, but I can admit when a line has been successfully walked.
Where the ungainly language and the incomplete explanation for the manitou really got to me was the ending, which I found completely unsatisfying. I often had to stop and, irritated, re-read passages depicting fights (like the movie-theater showdown) to figure out who was actually dead and who was only being killed in a vision. It felt as if Straub were rushing toward conclusion, but once he got there, wasn’t really sure how to direct it. There’s no way the Chowder Society could have won, but I almost wanted to see them all killed rather than traipse through the de-evolution of Don Wanderley. Moreover, I felt the ending somehow let Ricky off the hook for Eva Galli’s murder. As they’re breaking into Anna Mostyn’s house at the end, Peter tells himself that “good magic lay only in human effort, but bad magic could come from around any corner,” which suggests that the chipper young high-schooler really hasn’t learned anything from his dance with the supernatural. Then again, I can’t say I learned anything more profound than not to trust anyone with the initials A.M. ever again. Alice McDermott, Aimee Mann, Adam McKay: I’m onto you now.