Summers feels right for cabins in woods and slashers, but winter is a time for ghosts, deeds and other things that haunt. At the risk of sounding bossy, it’s a time to pick up Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. Yes it is. The library’s edition, a well-worn fat little paperback, fit right in one hand, making it easy to hold a mug full of mind-your-own-business in the other.
The Chowder Society is composed of four established older gentlemen in their hometown of Milburn, NY, a small place with a long memory. They gather regularly at each others’ homes dressed in evening wear to drink, listen and take turns answering one question. The question is not What is the worst thing you’ve ever done? – they all know the answer to that one. Instead they answer: What is the worst thing that ever happened to you?
It’s a powerful question that has bound these men in nightmares even before one tells a horrific story about a young boy named Fenny Bate. Nobody asks if it’s true; they know it probably is. Every one of them is haunted. After this night, it seems they’re also being hunted. Maybe. The things they see are too strange to be real. But what if they are? They need an expert to figure it all out.
They write to Don Wanderley, a horror novelist and the nephew of Edward, the society’s first member to die nearly one year ago. He arrives with a ghost story of his own, confirming he was always going to be a part of this. Together they attempt to piece together the trail of a cold, alluring female. Meanwhile snow falls heavy as the town and its livestock bear the brunt of not one, but several naughty entities with a taste for warm blood.
Funny how lost this country seems, though people have been walking back and forth over it for hundreds of years. It looks bruised and regretful, its soul gone or withdrawn, waiting for something to happen that will wake it up again.
The layering of this story builds major and minor characters, while the nuanced atmosphere and tightly controlled plotting envelop you in a creepy cone of silence every time you pick it up, which is often.
The first part unfolds at its own pace like a real ghost story told aloud for the first time, but it’s not actually a ghost story at all. Not as we think of think of them. No, this is a revenge story. It drew me in with its tense tone and the thread you sense but can’t always see. The writing is superb and delivers a number of genuinely terrifying moments, images and lingering possibilities. The structure reminded me a bit of ‘Salem’s Lot, but this goes deeper and, though I love early King, this one’s better. Then I did a little Googling and found that Straub credits ‘Salem’s Lot for showing him how to “work on a larger canvas”. Thank you, King.
It’s not perfect though. The ending didn’t feel right. I wish I skipped the epilogue and pretended the prologue was the final chapter. And I minded the repeated implication that women are in any way less capable. The male characters are defined by their intellect and perception, the females by their beauty or lack of. It’s a tendency many of the male horror writers I’ve tried to read recently share and it’s wildly annoying.
Still, this is horror at its best. I love how the idea of ghost stories invoking their subjects taps into the psychic superstition that speaking or thinking of something dark may open a door for it that can’t be closed. And Straub shows what a terrifying quality patience can be in an entity with time to kill.
Not a bad way to begin my reading year. From this I enjoyed a true classic and learned Straub and King wrote a book together, The Talisman. I’m not a fan of co-authored books, but this I may have to try.
In 1981, Ghost Story as adapted into a film starring, oddly enough, Fred Astaire and Douglas Fairbanks. It was actually Fred Astaire’s last movie. It’s not at the library or on YouTube or Netflix, so off I go to hunt it down.