"In a Sufi fable, the elephant fell in love with a firefly, and imagined that it shone for no other creature than he; and when it flew long distances away, he was confident that at the center of its light was the image of an elephant." -- Ghost Story, p. 198
At the heart of Ghost Story is the simple (yet, ultimately, horrifying) idea that the world around us may be a very different one from the world we think we live in. We may not know what we think we know; we may not be who we think we are; we may not love what we think we love; we may not fear what we think we fear.
If that strikes you as a pretentious way to begin a review . . . well, my lawyer seems to be advising me to plead the fifth on that topic, so I can't confirm your suspicions. However, I can tell you that if the above paragraph frustrates and annoys you in any way, it's entirely possible that the novel we're here to discuss -- Peter Straub's Ghost Story -- might well have the same effect. I'd hesitate to call it "pretentious," because that word implies a sham of some sort, the pretense of meaning that is not actually there; so, let's instead say that Ghost Story is a novel that is very deliberately fraught with meaning, and that it isn't shy about letting you know it, or about challenging you to rise to its level. (Assuming you are not already there; you may well be, but as for this reviewer, who spends more time than he ought playing Plants Vs. Zombies and eating bbq potato chips, he tends to need to take the elevator up a few levels when dealing with material of this type.)
None of this answers the central concern of any review, which is this: is the book any good? The answer: yes, yes it is; VERY good, in fact.
Let's back up for a moment, and return to the way I intended-- unbeknownst to you -- to begin this review: with some personal reminiscences. I've said what I'm about to say before elsewhere, so apologies to any of you who've heard it before and feel I've become tiresome on the subject. I think it's crucial, though, if for nobody other than myself, to note that in large part, this entire blog is a work of memory on my part. That, plus a determined effort to understand why I love some of the things that I love.
My memory tends to be a bit weak when it comes to particulars. For example, I may watch a movie, and then be unable to remember -- without straining -- much about it a month later, beyond a simple like-or-dislike glow. After a few repeats, I tend to retain things much more solidly, at least in the short term, but when it comes to a book I read once over twenty years, fugeddaboudit, I got nothin' more often than not. Rereading is one way to defeat that; rereading and blogging about it is proving to be an even better way, though.
So, back to Ghost Story. I read it once, a bit more than twenty years ago, and before I began rereading it a few weeks ago, all I really remembered about it was that I had loved it. I knew it had something to do with old men being haunted by the malevolent spirit of a woman they had killed in their youth, but beyond that, I had nothing.
Imagine my surprise, then, to discover upon rereading the book that I'd remembered it so poorly that even as I was rereading it, it seemed totally alien and unfamiliar to me. Yes, true, it does have to do with old men being haunted by the ghost of a woman they killed ... but only on the surface of things, and as the text itself makes abundantly clear, the surface of things and the reality beneath are very, very different. And I remembered nothing -- absolutely nothing -- of that element of the book. This surprises me, and if I didn't know better, I'd be tempted to think that I'd never actually read the book at all, that my "memories" of it were actually drawn from the movie. But I did read it, and even if I hadn't, all I really remember about the movie is how hot Alice Krige is with her clothes off. Crass, but true.
It interests me, then, that the theme of one's sense of reality -- including one's sense of memory -- being essentially unreliable is mirrored by the very experience of my relationship with the novel. In Ghost Story, the murder at its heart isn't a murder, and the ghost isn't even a ghost, so it seems appropriate that my memories -- vague though they may have been -- were also mostly false. It's an appealing incidence of the real world colliding thematically with the world of the story.
This is a rich, nuanced tale, and it deserves much more attention than I'm going to give to it (an admission I've been making a lot lately; apologies for repeating myself on yet another topic!), so rather than try to concoct some sort of brilliantly compact essay, I'm going to resort to the old bullet-points method, and just make some stray comments about things that occurred to me over the course of reading the book.
- From p.238-9: "Do you get the point? Harold Sims asked Stella Hawthorne, absently stroking her right breast. Do you see? It's just a story. That's the kind of thing my colleagues are into now. Stories! The point about this thing" [a Manitou] "the Indian was chasing is that it has to show itself -- it can't resist identifying itself -- it's not just evil. And I'm supposed to tell dumb horror stories like that, dumb stories like some stupid hack..." This rant, delivered by one minor character to another somewhat-less-minor character, is a part of one of the less-successful elements of the novel, but let's not allow that slow us down. I think the passage reveals something about one of Straub's real agendas in the novel, which is to legitimize the horror tale. Straub chronicler Bill Sheehan mentions in At the Foot of the Story Tree (an excellent book-length examination of Straub's canon circa 2000) that between the writing of If You Could See Me Now and Ghost Story, Straub essentially conducted a self-taught crash-course of the supernatural, devouring the works of authors ranging from Poe to Hawthorne to James to Machen to King. Straub, of course, comes from an intensely literary background, so in my brain I imagine Straub defending his recent career choices to certain stuffy colleagues who looked very steeply down their noses at "horror" fiction. It doesn't seem like a coincidence that Straub put that quotation in the mouth of a character we are supposed to mainly feel disdain for; through Sims, he seems to be taking an opportunity to raise a very elegant middle finger toward any number of anti-horror intellectuals.
- In their scenes together, Peter Barnes and Jim Hardie are more than a bit reminiscent of Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade from Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Both sets of boys are stopped in their tracks by the sudden, incongruous sound of carnival music drifting through the air. Both Jims are irrepressible scamps who seem to hold great potential for dragging their more refined and less rambunctious friend down into the mire with them. In Something Wicked, it is a mostly-playful theme; in Ghost Story, it is deadly earnest, and has tragic consequences. Bradbury's tale, like Straub's, also draws at least part of its strength from the idea of growing accustomed to the idea of growing old. I would say that the two novels have very different takes on how best to accomplish that goal, however; but the similarity of theme stands.
- Speaking of books that may have influenced Straub, Sheehan in At the Foot of the Story Tree makes a very compelling argument that Ghost Story was heavily influenced by Stephen King's Salem's Lot. Both novels feature the idea of a small town coming under siege by supernatural beings who, in so doing, try to expose the moral stagnancy that lies at the heart of small-town life. I would argue that Straub goes in completely different directions that King does, though; he seems to argue that the small town is essentially a good thing that can and will survive, whereas King is maybe a bit more pessimistic on the subject. (King would continue to be pessimistic on the score, and a couple of decades later he wrote Storm of the Century, which borrows from Ghost Story the element of a snowstorm cutting a small town off and making it vulnerable to evil that has set up camp within it.) Straub also, arguably, borrows the notion of a small group of believers (one of them a teenage boy) banding together to combat the forces of evil; King himself had borrowed at least part of that notion from Dracula, which was a direct influence upon Salem's Lot.
- "Are you saying that events in this town are occurrences from an unwritten book?" asks one character, incredulously, of another on page 275. Sure enough, part of what's going on in this book is that the malevolent spirits are tapping into the fertile imagination of Don Wanderley, a horror author, and bringing some of the things he imagines there to life. Of course, it is just as true to say that Don is being inspired by these creatures. And it's also seemingly just as true that the spirits are drawing their inspiration from the stories the old men of the Chowder Society tell one another ... and that the old men are telling the stories because of the influence of the spirits. The whole thing is a bit like an ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail and creating a circle that cannot be escaped. This idea worked its way into Stephen King's writing later: It has echoes of it, and the Dark Tower saga arguably does, as well.
- From page 356: "She did seem like a devil; like something possessed. You know how when a woman gets angry, really angry, she can reach way back into herself and find rage enough to blow any man to pieces -- how all that feeling comes out and hits you like a truck?" The observant reader will perhaps have noticed that Ghost Story marked three consecutive novels in which Peter Straub wrote stories about malevolent, vengeful female ghosts. I would certainly not go so far as to say Straub in these novels was showing a misogynistic streak, but there are very few female characters in any of the three books who would qualify as being positive figures. In Julia, the titular character is a bit of a loon; in If You Could See Me Now, the most prominent non-spectral female character is a semi-Lolitaesque figure; in Ghost Story, we get adultresses aplenty. Something to ponder in the next novel on the great Straub readathon, perhaps.
- As the title indicates, this novel is very much about the process, import, and impact of storytelling, so it seems perfectly reasonable that in some regards, it is an anthology of smaller, almost self-contained stories. We get the tale of Fenny Bate from one character, the tale of Alma Mobley from another, the tale of Elmer Scales, and so forth. They are all very much interconnected, but the lazy reader -- a label that has, I must confess, been known to fit me from time to time -- might object to the seemingly episodic nature of the book. We bounce from Lewis Benedikt to the sheriff to Peter and Jim to Don to Ricky and Sears; the novel never entirely seems to settle on a main character. This isn't exactly a problem, and to some degree Salem's Lot employs the same technique, but whereas Sheehan finds Straub's novel to be the superior between the two, I think King kept a better rein on things, and produced a more focused novel.
- A major sequence in the novel is set in an movie theatre where the projectionist has been showing Night of the Living Dead to nobody. Against this backdrop, some of the good guys fight some of the bad guys. On the one hand, I see the thematic validity of this setting, but on the other ... I dunno, it seems maybe a wee bit on-the-nose. They're coming for you, Barbara... Look! There's one now...!
- While I'm being all judgmental, I think I may as well mention that I think I prefer If You Could See Me Now to Ghost Story. Straub was really swinging for the fences here, but I think the smaller cast of characters and the tighter focus of If You Could See Me Now make for a marginally better tale (or, at least, for one that I responded to more strongly).
And for now, I think that will suffice. I'll be back soon with a brief look at the movie version of Ghost Story, and won't THAT be lovely?