A CLASSIC RECONSIDERED:
Peter Straub's GHOST STORY
By by Hank Wagner
[First published in DarkEcho]
"...your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions..." Joel 3:3
In 1979, I discovered the novels of a guy named Stephen King and began reading more extensively in the horror genre. On the prowl for something similar, I happened on Straub's book in the library. I checked it out, little realizing that I had begun a decades long love affair with his work. It's now been almost twenty years since I read it the first time--I've read hundreds of books since then, but few thrilled me like Ghost Story. Rereading it now, I realize the depth of Straub's accomplishment. Like the legendary storytellers to whom he pays homage, Straub has created a timeless tale of terror, an enduring classic.
Reduced to its essentials, Ghost Story is a tale of supernatural revenge. As young men, Ricky Hawthorne, Sears James, Edward Wanderly, Lewis Benedikt and John Jaffrey accidentally kill a woman named Eva Galli. They panic, and decide to cover up her death. Placing her body in a borrowed car, they push the vehicle into a nearby lake. As the car sinks into the muck, they see a sight that haunts them for the rest of their lives: for a moment, it appears as if Eva is still alive, as they catch a glimpse of her face through the rear window. Shaken, they vow to keep her death a secret, and go on with their lives.
Fifty years later, the group still lives in their hometown of Milburn, NY, prosperous and content. Now known as The Chowder Society, they meet on a regular basis to swap ghost stories, but they never speak of Eva. Then, Edward Wanderly dies during a party given in the honor of an actress named Anne-Veronica Moore, apparently of fright. The remaining members experience a series of prophetic dreams in which several of them die. Unable to admit to themselves that Eva Galli has returned to haunt them, they send for Don Wanderley, Ed's nephew. A writer by trade, Don has penned a horror novel called The Nightwatcher, based, we later learn, on his own experiences with Eva, known to him as Alma Mobley. Don's arrival in Milburn seems to send a signal to the evil which threatens the group, resulting in the deaths of two more of their number. The survivors band with Don and Peter Barnes, a young man whose mother has been killed by Eva and her minions. Together they struggle to locate and destroy their nemesis.
Straub sets the tone for the novel from its first sentences, which express a thought repeated throughout the book. Readers are immediately confronted with the question, "What's the worst thing you've ever done?," followed by the response, "I won't tell you that, but I'll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me...the most dreadful thing..." Readers are filled with anticipation, wondering what the dreadful thing could be.
Straub then proceeds to explore what Stephen King called "a very Jamesian theme...the idea that ghosts, in the end, adopt the motivations and perhaps the very souls of those who behold them." Straub leaves it unclear whether Eva/Alma/Anne Veronica could exist without her victims' belief to sustain her -- we never know whether her existence is independent, symbiotic, or totally dependent on those she is out to destroy. Straub's clues muddy the waters, as when Eva and another shapeshifter are asked, "Who are you?" Their answer, "I am you," is maddening and ambiguous.
Numerous readings reveal how much the book owes to Salem's Lot. Straub has publicly acknowledged this debt, stating that "I wanted to work on a large canvas. Salem's Lot showed me how to do this without getting lost among a lot of minor characters. Besides the large canvas I also wanted a certain largeness of effect. I had been imbued with the notion that horror stories are best when they are ambiguous and low key and restrained. Reading Salem's Lot, I realized that the idea was self defeating." On reflection, the debt to Salem's Lot is obvious. Both feature small towns under siege from the supernatural. In both, the terror escalates until the towns are threatened with destruction -- Jerusalem's Lot is consumed by purifying fire, while Milburn is decimated. In each, a writer's arrival in town seems to trigger disaster. Both writers strike up alliances with young teenagers whose lives are ruined by the terror, Ben Mears with Mark Petrie and Don Wanderly with Peter Barnes. Both forge an almost parental bond with their young allies, replacing those lost parents. In both, the evil lives on -- Ben and Mark end up on the run, while Don, after ending the threat of Eva, presumably goes off to face her evil aunt.
In the end, however, Salem's Lot was a merely template, a guide which opened Straub's eyes to the possibilities of horror. Ghost Story is a marriage of two sensibilities: King's, from which it derives its more operatic moments, and Straub's, in that it thoroughly fulfills his literary ambition to expand the boundaries of the traditional ghost story. It also stands as perhaps the first example of Straub's trademark exploration of the power of stories, of the capacity of stories to uncover the truth. Much as King's book stands as a tribute to writers like Bram Stoker and Richard Matheson, Straub's stands as a tribute to writers specifically referenced in the book (Hawthorne, Henry James) and those not (like Poe, Irving, Lovecraft, Bierce and M. R. James) but whose influence is there nonetheless.
In recent years, Straub appears to have abandoned the supernatural to concentrate on suspense, in novels like Koko, Mystery, The Throat and The Hellfire Club. Ghost Story remains, however, the novel which made Straub's name and established him as a presence in the market and in the horror genre. While I enjoy all his books, part of me hopes he will someday return to the material that brought him to prominence. Regardless of where his career takes him, I'll be sure to follow. --Hank Wagner
[Hank's Note: The dynamics of Ghost Story have been more thoroughly explored by better minds than mine in a variety of other venues. If you want other perspectives, let me suggest Stephen King's discussion of the book in Danse Macabre, Peter Nicholls' chapter in Horror: 100 Best Books(an invaluable resource that is now back in print), and Bill Sheehan's piece in "The New York Review of Science Fiction," part of a larger consideration of Straub's work.]