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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ghost Story: Zack Handlen's comments

Illustration for article titled Ghost Story: Zack Handlen's comments

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.


This is, I think, the fifth time I’ve read Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. Or possibly the sixth? I’m not sure. I do know I first read it in high school, after finding out about the novel in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, a survey of horror in film, television, and literature. King raved about the book, and I was at a point in my life where everything I picked up was either by him or recommended by him, so I don’t think I really had a choice.

Thankfully, I loved Ghost Story, and in rapid succession devoured whatever else of Straub’s work I could find: Shadowlands, If You Could See Me Now, Koko, Mystery, and of course King’s first collaboration with Straub, The Talisman. At the time, it was a revelation. I had a very specific idea of what good horror fiction was like, because at the time, King was the only horror writer I’d been able to read, and Straub broke the mold I had in my head. His stories were experimental, odd, and often hard to completely get a handle on, while still catching my imagination. I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I thought I’d like to scare people if I could, and Straub was the first indication that I wouldn’t have to copy King to do it.

As I got older, though, I started to see the flaws in his writing, the way the boldness and ambition that initially attracted me could often lead to muddled, unsatisfying storytelling. Re-reading Ghost Story again, I can see some of those flaws poking through the surface, although I think Straub’s biggest missteps are less out of ambition, and more in the sometimes frustratingly prosaic way in which parts of that ambition resolve themselves. That’s always a problem for horror writers—explanations are hardly ever scary, and, even worse, they have a way of making everything else seem less scary too. The more light in a room, the fewer the shadows. So I wound up skimming over parts of GS, like the calm discussions of the Manitou. As the story built up steam, I also skipped the standard freak-out sequences, which seemed more like required elements of the genre than the weirder, less defined parts.

But I’m still fond of this one, and I’d argue that it’s generally successful in its aims. It’s a bold step on Straub’s part to give two of his heroes the surnames “Hawthorne” and “James”; even bolder to have his James tell us a variation on the real James’ The Turn Of The Screw. But since Straub is trying to engage the way those old stories still affect us, I think the boldness is respectful enough to not be too ridiculous, even though he never quite lives up to that standard. My favorite parts of GS are always the stories within stories, like Sears James’ tale of Gregory and Fenny Bate, or Don Wanderley’s adventures with the mysterious Alma Mobley. I still remember my biggest scare from the novel, first time through, was having Sears talk about seeing Fenny on his staircase. That was then, and still is now, to me the most unsettling element of any good ghost story—the implacable and inarguable imposition of the supernatural upon our world. Fenny doesn’t do anything to Sears, not then, but his presence is enough.

As for Don’s romantic woes, well, there’s a bit of Maugham in there, I think, Of Human Bondage done in 30 pages instead of the usual bazillion. That section wouldn’t quite stand on its own, but it nearly does, and it shows Straub managing to mix a strong hook with a nicely underplayed ambiguity. GS is at its best when it’s grabbing big handfuls of its influences and dashing them to the page with no clear reason beyond a rough similarity of intent, when Straub is going big, weird, and freakishly absurd. It’s no wonder King loved the book, as it owes a large debt to his own Salem’s Lot, but where Salem’s Lot opens with a man and a boy running south from a disaster we don’t yet understand, GS begins with a man and a young girl. A very young girl, and not only do we not understand what their relationship is, we don’t understand what they’re doing together, and we don’t know the man’s intentions. The sense of relief when we realize we’re not expected to watch some poor child’s degradation—no End Of Alice here, thank you very much—is mixed, at least partly, with disappointment. Because of course there could’ve been no other answer, but the tension is gone, the threat, just as something leaves when we finally hear the story of Eva Galli’s death. It’s a mixture of the conventional with the odd that I still find a lot to take from even now, when I’ve read the novel so many times that its individual scenes have begun to lose their cohesion, the way the pages in a paperback will come free once the spine has broken in too many places.

So, discussion points:

• Speaking of Eva Galli, one of things I hadn’t really noticed before is that there really are no major female characters in the novel who aren’t evil. Stella Hawthorne is probably the closest, but she doesn’t get as much screen time (so to speak) as the Chowder Society and Don. I tend to notice this sort of thing a little too much, but it’s odd, especially in light of how Galli dies—Straub sells it as strongly as he can, but what it really seems to come down to is a bunch of naïve twerps freaking out when a woman gets too aggressive with them. Anybody else notice this?


• Are the literary references effective, or do you find them distracting? I think one of the reason those eventual explanations disappoint is that they don’t live up to the ambition of the book’s earlier sections, but I’m not sure I’d have as much fun with the novel without the homage.

• One of the things that I love is the way the stories each character tells make the danger greater while at the same time giving it its weakness. It’s a common theme in modern horror—again, check out King—but it seems fresh here because Straub doesn’t make anything too easy for his characters. What do you think this says about our need to translate real-life pain into fiction?


• It’s interesting how Ricky is spared death in the dream he and the rest of the Chowder Society members share near the story’s beginning. Does this mean the dreams aren’t being sent by the Manitou? And why does Ricky seem most likely to survive?

• Finally—so, did it scare you?