If it wasn’t for Stephen King’s massive horror book Danse Macabre, I might not have ever read Ghost Story, or even heard of Peter Straub. I’ll save Danse Macabre for another column, as here we will dive deep into the deep end with the first Peter Straub novel I ever read. Sure, I’d seen Ghost Story on the paperback rack in the library, but really didn’t know what it was about. And the title really didn’t grab me. Of course, after reading it, what I discovered inside wasn’t just a ghost story, but it was THE ghost story, probably the best I’d ever read, and even today nothing really comes close.
We begin with … the most dreadful thing.
Starting with the end of the story first, Straub takes us on a dangerous road trip. Here we find Don Wanderley on the road with a young girl who is not his daughter. We are first led to believe Wanderley has abducted this girl, though she still stays with him, and doesn’t complain, even when he uses rope to tie her to him so they sleep in the car. Fearing the police is on his trail at every turn, Wanderley begins checking in to hotels on their trip south, ultimately standing near the girl when she sleeps with a knife behind his back. We soon discover that Wanderley is no murderer, and this young girl is definitely not what we think she is.
Straub takes a step back and introduces us The Chowder Society. This motley group of elderly gentlemen meet on occasion to share ghost stories with each other. Life-long friends, they also share a dark fifty-year-old secret that’s threatening to rise from the abyss. One of their rank, Edward Wanderley, has recently died at a local party, and there’s really not a clear reason as to how he died. The group knows Ed has a nephew—a writer named Don Wanderley—whose fiction could possibly shine a light on all this strangeness that surrounds them. Sadly, these men are in denial. Their hallucinatory nightmares foretell their own deaths, as their shared past has returned to haunt them to the grave.
These men harbor a secret they’ve lived with for most of their lives. True, it was an accident that befell Miss Galli, but they had their futures to worry about. So much easier to just sweep it under the rug … or sink it in the water. And that’s exactly what they did. The car did sink, but not before they caught a glimpse of their secret inside, looking out the back window, still alive.
Straub does an excellent job of getting under the skin of each member of The Chowder Society, giving each of the men distinct personalities and voices. He also balances his character types quiet well, especially considering the relationship between Ricky Hawthorn and Sears James, positioning these two strong personalities together to provide an underlying emotional element as well as a just as relatable rational core, characterizations that mimic our own yin and yang internal conflicts when confronting the unknown and supernatural.
Before reading Ghost Story, my concept of ghosts and spirits was quite limited. I believed that if there were real ghosts in the world, then they could only exist in an ethereal state, void of substance, sometimes able to interact with the physical world, often reluctantly. For some, a spectral irritation, for others, another reason to keep the closet door in the bedroom shut at night. Straub kicks these concepts up quite a few notches, reaching deep into folklore while challenging everything we have come to expect with trope. Here, we encounter a ghost with corporeal mass and cunning insight, able to tap into her victim’s very soul and use those secrets to twist the knife of revenge again and again. For this story, wailing and moaning and rattling chains just won’t do. Straub just didn’t want to give you chills; he wanted you screaming in blood-curdling fear, and he succeeds in this endeavor quite nicely.
One of things that has always fascinated me is The Chowder Society’s need to torture themselves with ghost stories, unable to reconcile the terrible business with Eva Galli and her untimely demise. By never speaking of the past, but continuously reminding themselves again and again, they leave the door wide open for Eva’s revenge. It always seemed to me to be some sort of unmentioned penance, or an underhanded method of redemption, and one that they all knew wouldn’t work in the long run. Memories fade, but the past never forgets, and it often recalls your secrets when you least expect it. Or, worse, you’ve become aware and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Here, the past has bite, and it’s on the hunt for blood. This is much more than some minor irritation; it is a struggle between life and death. The spirit they face is cunning, and more than willing to destroy from the sidelines, attacking Don Wanderley after first attaching herself to Don’s brother David. Unfortunately, David doesn’t survive. Don fictionalizes his accounts with a decent novel called Nightwatchers. Believing him to be their personal ‘Van Helsing’ The Chowder Society writes to Don when they realize their whole town is under siege by a personal revenge they created.
It’s unclear how much of the men’s fears and beliefs, play into the ghost, and it’s that same ambiguity that propels the story to dizzying heights. Per usual, Straub starts slow. Even the more active prologue reads at a leisurely pace. This is deliberate and calculating, designed to ease you in while he slowly wraps his fingers around your throat. There are no jump scares here, but pure cold, creeping dread, mounting with each turn of the page, slowly revealing the secrets as each day becomes more dangerous for our protagonists. While ambiguous at its core, Straub manages to tie loose ends up quite nicely with a well-executed ending that flows with the story while remaining somewhat unpredictable. Throwing in subtle homages to the masters of the ghost-story from before while keeping the story modern and set in the now isn’t an easy thing to accomplish, but Straub makes it look all too easy. First time readers as well as longtime fans would be hard-pressed to find another tale that’s so fitting for the Halloween season.
This profile of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story concludes me and Benoit Lelievre of Dead End Follies’ Straubathon. Well, not really. In December, we will go at it again, one more time, with a profile of the Stephen King/Peter Straub collaboration, The Talisman. Then, in 2018, Tattered Tomes returns with a new read along … a Barkerthon, or is that a Barker-rama? Either way, we’ll be covering Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. Tattered Tomes will be back next month with a special profile of one the most influential books I’ve ever read in my life. Until then, keep on hunting for those Tattered Tomes, and Happy Halloween.
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