Book Review : Peter Straub - Ghost Story (1979)
There are no rules when it comes to ghosts. Vampires can't be in the sun, werewolves can be shot with silver bullets, but what the fuck are you supposed to do with a ghost? You don't know what they want or what they can do to you. They just kick your ass until they get bored. Ghosts have always been a harder sell in literature than on screen, though. It's harder for them to catch you off guard because they can't just jump at you. They have to creep their way in. The most terrifying ghost novel I've ever read is probably Peter Straub's iconic Ghost Story, which feels way too real to be comfortable and conventionally "fun". And I'm not a guy that scares easy with books.
Ghost Story is the story of four old men: Frederick Hawthorne, Sears James, John Jaffery and Lewis Benedikt. They get together every now and then to tell each other haunting stories from their past. None of them has any idea if his friends' stories are true, but they enjoy each other's company for reasons greater than words. The four men's bond is stronger than ever since the mysterious death of their friend Edward Wanderley a year prior. But it's not that simple. Wanderley's death is the latest layer in a series of occurrences that goes all the way back to their young days. Ricky, Sears, John and Lewis are not sharing their ghosts with one another, they are bound by them.
What is so darn scary about Ghost Story anyway? Old men running around town, fighting invisible demons can't that captivating, or can they? What makes Ghost Story is that it uses the idea of metaphorical ghosts (past failures, broken relationship, regrets and unresolved issues of all sorts) and turns it into the real McCoy. The Chowder Society stories first seem like musings and old men regrets, but the ghosts portrayed in our protagonists' stories slowly start creeping into their lives first through nightmares, then through hallucinations and before you know it, their lives are controlled by a malevolent entity that seeks revenge. I wasn't sure about reading 500 pages of old men adventures at first, but Peter Straub used old age as a way to render the members of the Chowder Society helpless and as a way to blur the line between the overbearing past and supernatural occurrence even further. And it works great.
The first half of Ghost Story is some of the best horror fiction I've ever read. It creeps inside of your head through your spine and doesn't leave when you close the book. The ghosts are genuinely unsettling. They function exactly like regrets: the past corrupting the present and creating situations where the protagonist cannot win. They're in complete control of the protagonists' lives. Unfortunately, Ghost Story takes a sharp turn once the nature of the Chowder Society members' predicament is revealed and it becomes a little silly. Think Michael Jackson's Thriller at the drive-in movies. I would welcome such a change of pace in any other novel, but Ghost Story takes so much time establishing a strong, cohesive (and a little self-serious) atmosphere, it's hard to suddenly let go of that. The second half of the book isn't bad, per se, but it's stretched a little thin. Peter Straub is notorious for that.
Ghost Story is widely considered to be Peter Straub's best novel and I can confirm it's fantastic. It stands tall above everything else I've read from him, except perhaps Floating Dragon. Even then, it's more ambiguous, nuanced and cohesive than the latter. It's a challenging novel with a fragmented structure and several narrators (both unreliable and omniscient). Ghost novels are a hard sell indeed. They demand an earnest investment from an audience on characters that have no guarantee to be interesting. You need to care in order to get blindsided. Ghost Story, which should've been named Ghost Stories or stories with ghosts in it, is worth an earnest shot. Even if the protagonists are old white men, they are old white men terrified enough to make it worth your while. If you're looking for something to get you in a Halloween mood, look no further.