Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Review of "Ghost Story" (by Peter Straub)

"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?


  1. Well, another floodgate scenario. U think the best review of Ghost Story is given in King's Danse Macabre where he outlines everything that maks the novel work.

    One of the most interesting aspects King points out is where the villian seems to say three things at once.

    I saw a ghost.

    I am a ghost.

    YOU are a ghost.

    It goes back to what you say about unreliability in the book. In fact, you could almost make this a case for a neat interpretation of the ending (Warning Major Spoilers).

    This isn't an alternate, so much as a tacked on ending. The novel ends on a beach with the main character and a police trooper, at least I think he was a trooper. In the tack on, the main character looks around and sees he's quite alone on the beach and doesn't look surprised.

    He gets up, goes to the road...and his car is waiting for him there, without a sign of damage.

    He gets in, starts up and drives off. He puts on the radio, something that ties in with the whole story, and grins. That grins looks way unatural and as we watch it elongates until it's skeleton driving the car.

    The last we see of him is the car driving down the highway, and then vanishing.

    It's just one take on the story, yet I somehow felt it ties into the unreliable nature of the story.


  2. Yes, certainly the point you initially make about a character being alive or not alive a.k.a being a "ghost" or not being a "ghost" is central to the work as a whole. One of the many reasons I find Straub's "Ghost Story" to be such an amazing book is this very ambiguity. In highly general terms the initial review exposed this idea as the world not necessarily being what we think it is. Which in turn implies a practically infinite spectrum of possibilities as to what is actually occurring standing in contrast to what any one idea about what is occurring may hold as true or false or, for that matter, any countless array of ambiguities which fall somewhere in between those two poles. To compound on this utterly frustrating but unrelentingly true aspect of the experience in which we commonly find ourselves, Straub purposefully leaves so much unexplained as to the nature of that complex, murky and yet highly specific idea of the supernatural which he explores in "Ghost Story." It is strongly implied that whatever type of creature Eva Galli and later Alma Mobley, Amy Monkton, Anna Mostyn etc is, does indeed experience some sort of "end" or "death" but that also it is somehow never beyond the reach of gaining a new form within the vast arcs of time through which it goes on believing in its unique form of personality. Yes, Don does destroy some immense part of the creature when he kills the wasp, but I didn't seem to get the feeling of full closure from that act. I feel there will be another incarnation of this being at some point in time. However, I do admit that I base part of my speculations as to this point on the sayings of the Galli creature as well as her "henchmen," though they are clearly not of the same strength as her. This may simply be due to the amount of time in which Gregory and Fenny were granted a new existence beyond the flesh. Eva says on several occasions she has lived for many millennia, as has her "race." However, the vanity which is such a large part of these beings personas leaves doubt as to the veracity behind any of her claims aside from those demonstrations of her powers which we, the reader, were given full access to. But the real hole for me is the character of Florence de Peyser, which one could assume to be the benefactor of Eva/Alma/Anna as she is presented as much older and may indeed be more powerful and so forth. Don certainly is confident that he will be able to defeat her and yet there is nothing said as to what exactly she is other than another sort of supernatural being and so his bravado at the end may simply be his acknowledgement of the fact that he must try to put an end to these things, if indeed he can.

    1. "Yes, Don does destroy some immense part of the creature when he kills the wasp, but I didn't seem to get the feeling of full closure from that act."

      It feels as if maybe the point the book is making is that evil -- if such a thing as "evil" exists at all, and if it is correct to apply a word to it that carries a moral judgment (it may not be) -- can't actually be defeated. It simply IS. Victory is impossible in the long run. If you allow the story to continue long enough, it always turns into a tragedy, because we all die.

      This, of course, is a huge part of the appeal of story: in story, we don't HAVE to let the tragedy happen, we can simply end the story on a happy note.

      Considered in those terms, horror fiction -- especially usefully-self-aware horror fiction like "Ghost Story" -- serves as a repudiation of the happy-ending approach. Nope, it says; THAT'S not how things ended...

      In this sense, horror fiction can be more realistic than most fiction, despite its fantasies and monsters.


  3. -Part 2-

    Now, ChrisC, the point you bring up is fascinating as well as throughout the book the supernatural beings continually say "I am you," which gives rise to the sense that their ability to live within the dreams, thoughts, wishes, hopes, fears, etc of humans is nothing more than their truly sharing, to a degree beyond that which could be easily expressed, the same nature as that of a human. The evil which exists in the world, does so through the acts of all creatures, whether conscious or not. So who is to say that something good, though seemingly against the total "evil" nature of the creatures, is not unconsciously expressed by them. The redeeming values of compassion, hope, courage, love, etc which humans consciously strive to express could very well be the unconscious expressions of the supernatural creatures. Certainly the creature's outward intentions would be in opposition to those of a human, but the argument could certainly be made that there is beauty is horror, subtlety in despair, creation in destruction and so forth. Thus, the hatred that the creatures feel for humans mirrors the hatred that humans feel for the creatures. It is the basic revulsion for that which is outside the reach of one's understanding. The creatures see humans as full of courage and self-assured action outwardly and yet "campfire hugging" in their fear of that which is unknown when the darkness falls. I'm sure it is Straub's intention to leave the creatures as things barely known, for they are that which we are not. Life is meaningless to them for they find death and its suffering and terror to be the the truest forms of reality. They do not know empathy as humans know it. Though they may know empathy of some sort. Certainly they show reverence and are far from nihilistic as they care deeply about how they present themselves and about how they go through with creating their sequences of action, both in themselves and others. They have a sense of humor. They have a desire to show the "wonders" of their viewing of the patterns of existence over the many thousands of years they have watched and though they act from a focus of vanity and desire to manipulate and demonstrate their superiority, they still desire to teach that which is surely a formative and amazing pattern running through the ages of human existence, things that inform our lives with deep meaning and purpose but remain largely inexplicable to our limited sense of time and interconnectivity.

    1. "The redeeming values of compassion, hope, courage, love, etc which humans consciously strive to express could very well be the unconscious expressions of the supernatural creatures."

      This is a fascinating idea. It puts me in mind of train of thought -- certainly not common to all Christians, but prevalent among at least a few -- that Satan is, in fact, one of the good guys: that he is doing the dirty work that is necessary to the good-and-evil equation. In fact, can good exist without evil existing to counterbalance it? If Hell didn't exist as an option, would Heaven be meaningful?

      Clearly, that line of thought adds new dimensions to "Ghost Story."

  4. -Part 3-

    Yes, it is such an interesting book and plays with such basic archetypes and forms of being. I think Don very well could be a ghost, just as could all humans and the creatures are the ones who live. Or humans could be in some sort of exalted limbo, waiting to be supernatural beings, in which we are granted an impression of freedom to either follow the dark path or the light path. Freedom seems to be a central theme to the work as a whole. For isn't it freedom that the creatures seem to cherish above all else. Or at least their idea of freedom. Having no care for any sort of social convention, their hatred for the hierarchies in which humans have ordered themselves leave them to a feeling a freedom. Which I'm sure is exacerbated by their abilities and their vanity. They desire this freedom of theirs at all times and also desire it for everyone else as well, whether the other may want it or not. So yes, our protagonists may very well be completely off base in their desires for a peaceful, ordered existence within a social structure which has an extremely superficial framework of wealth, beauty and normalcy. Indeed it could be argued that humans are just as vain as the creatures. Just as the previous argument could hold that the creatures are in some sense the heroes and the humans are the in turn the villains. He pokes about in that which is timeless and malevolent, peering into the dark and trying to shine some light on that which causes these evil impulses and the subsequent fearfulness it creates in those unable to face it. The fear is us, as he so often says and I believe he means it is that in us which is abhorred. It is the part of us that knows, senses, feels, understands our capacity for hatred, violence, depravity and evil and so lives in fear of these impulses, unsure whether they can be controlled in times of great need or not. Is virtue the nemesis of fear? Could that be Straub's thesis? Or perhaps that is the implication but the answer is left unsaid, for each and every person to decide for themselves. Or maybe no amount of virtue could overcome fear entirely and we are left to cycles upon cycles of doubt as to our capacity for good in which we so dearly try to believe? Or maybe it is only when we can see the good in that which is evil, and the evil in that which is good will fear dissipate? I cannot say. It doesn't seem truth can wear a name, as qualities are the pieces of things we have invented so that they will fit into the dictionary and as such are mere descriptors reaching for something intangible. Perhaps evil knows something of this and we can share in this knowing only by letting evil grab our minds and hearts with the doubt and hopelessness which it forms in that collision. I get the feeling that there is more to the story than doubt and hopelessness. They are but part of the immense steeps we must climb to reach the top of..? I do not know. But I think that the key is "I am You" and that in these three words are contained the negations of all the parts of the world. If two are one, is there an invocation of opposition? Is that the ending of suffering? Again, I do not know. "Ghost Story" is highly entertaining and endlessly thought provoking. Surely a work of art that can take one's mind to the most counterintuitive of ideas. To that special beyond where reality feels comfortable enough to take (most of) its clothes off. A+

    1. "I think Don very well could be a ghost, just as could all humans and the creatures are the ones who live." -- That's an interesting idea. I'd need to go back and read the novel again to know where I came down on that issue for sure (if "for sure" is possible with a work like this one), but it's certainly a possibility.

      "Is virtue the nemesis of fear? Could that be Straub's thesis? Or perhaps that is the implication but the answer is left unsaid, for each and every person to decide for themselves." -- The great thing is that the novel probably works no matter which of those options you choose. If you want to simply read it as a horror/adventure story, you can do that; if you want to read it as a sort of prose Rorschach test, you can do that too.

      "I get the feeling that there is more to the story than doubt and hopelessness. They are but part of the immense steeps we must climb to reach the top of..? I do not know." -- I am freestyling here, which might well lead to a disastrous gaffe on my part...but I think maybe the title is instructive. "Ghost Story" as a title suggests that that the novel will be a story about a ghost, but it's also a designator for an entire genre, one which spans multiple mediums. (I know the correct work there is "media," but I just hate media as a plural for medium, and I generally won't use it. Sorry for that!)

      If the title designates a genre, then you can consider the possibility that it is commenting upon that genre, if only by way of defining it. And the only way a work can do that is to wrestle -- once again, if only by implication of definition -- with the philosophy underlying that genre.

      In this particular case, the result seems to have been something like this chain of progression:

      (1) Ghosts don't exist.
      (2) Stories exist.
      (3) Ghost stories exist.
      (4) Stories are ideas, and ideas are real because they influence us. Which means that:
      (5) Ghosts DO exist, if only in our minds.

      Unless one reads "Ghost Story" purely as a narrative -- which is possible to do, since it's how I read it in high school -- then I think one can't help but have issues like this come up.

      The danger in that for me is that some writers can and do allow their ideas and their philosophy to overpower the story. When that happens, I think it's a failure; I think that that is a doctoral thesis disguised as fiction, which makes it a fundamentally dishonest work.

      Straub avoided that sin very deftly, in my opinion.

      It was great to read these comments -- thanks for leaving them!

  5. I enjoyed reading these comments, thank you to any/all who replied. I am rather obsessed with this book and being a reader of, well, more serious fiction I am loathe to bring this fact up. It truly is an outstanding novel. I'll just leave it at that.

    1. Have you read any of Straub's other novels? I'd be curious to hear some opinions on them (especially "If You Could See Me Now," "Shadowland," and "Floating Dragon").