Author: Peter Straub
Published: Jonathan Cape Limited (1979)
Who doesn't love a good ghost story? Well, as a child I sure didn't. I was a timid critter that either found those spooky tales told around the campfire too dull and uninspired to scare me, or too gross and undignified to properly enthrall me. One thing about them though, they managed to act as a catalyst for my childish imagination, bringing shadows to life as I tried to sleep in the waining firelight. At its best, Peter Straub's Ghost Story managed to attain the same kind of unsettling reaction in a man who is still a kid at heart. I would not dare listen to one of his ghost stories as a child had he been sitting around the campfire.
For a novel that introduces tension at a stealthy pace, Ghost Story is very busy. By that I mean the varying styles of storytelling within this one book range from flashbacks to dream sequences to journal entries to even transcripts of audio recordings. The peaks and valleys of the story, along with these varying methods of telling the story, make Ghost Story feel more epic than it actually is--not to say that it isn't a fine piece of dark fiction.
The Chowder Society is a group of upper crust compatriots, now in their autumn years nestled in the small town of Milburn, New York. They smoke cigars, drink expensive booze, and regale each other with chilling ghost stories. Why? I suppose it's the only way they can maintain the sanity and composure following the death of one of the their own, as well as a tortured moment in their youth that scarred their futures.
But they discover to their dismay that the spooks and spirits they have used to ward off tedium may now be creeping into reality to wreak a special form of havoc on them and the entire town. In an effort to better understand what may be at work, they call upon the nephew of their deceased friend and society member, who also happens to be a horror novelist--and also has his own demons haunting him.
The novel's story is split up for the most part by the viewpoints of three characters of varying ages and temperaments: Ricky Hawthorne, a member of a longstanding group of friends called the Chowder Society, all haunted by nightmares; Don Wanderley, a novelist and the holder of the key to finding out what is behind the nightmares and haunting memories of Hawthorne's deceased friend and Don's uncle, Ed Wanderley; and Peter Barnes, a timid teen in the company of a disreputable friend who puts him on a collision course with the very spirit(s) that have descended upon the town. Over the course of nearly half a century, we see into the lives and the deaths of those three men and several others whose lives have been touched and tortured by a malevolent spirit that has both lurked in shadows and hidden in plain sight.
It seems a bit disjointed at first with the meandering viewpoints, and that's purposeful I believe since when the main story starts to gel and the stakes are laid out for the reader, everything becomes clear. But it's a long row to ho and requires a readers patience and undivided attention. The book moves from the meetings of the Chowder Society and the shared ghost stories as told by the elderly Milburn (in New York) residents in a longstanding tradition. Then, we see the ill-fated romance and engagement of Don Wanderley to an enchanting student at Berkley University. From there, we see a slow and insidious disintegration of Milburn and its residents as something has taken to killing--first farm animals and then intensifying as people are killed or disappear. And as the forces of good converge to battle the evil spirits haunting Milburn, you can't help but wonder if anyone will make it out alive.
It's a beautifully written piece of dark literature, and I consider it nearly as impressive as Peter Straub's Shadowland (reviewed here). While I don't share in idolizing the book by so many horror fans, I would be a fool not to recognize a quality piece of storytelling when I see it The foreshadowing is so expertly laid out the book deserves to be read solely to examine that. While the more ravenous horror fans may find this book lacking an intensity more akin to other horror novels, the ambiance and delivery are a treat of a different kind. Like any good ghost story, this novel doesn't so much scare you as haunt you.