Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

Because I am a little shit, and because I have a tendency to soak up and project hyperliberal dogmas of oppression and subjugation, my first thought after completing Peter Straub's seminal Ghost Story was "another goddamned horror novel about poor helpless men besieged by an eeeeevil woman."

On a very surface level, it's an accurate observation. The only two women to get any real screen time are the shapeshifter antagonist in her various guises and the wife of one of the protagonists, who is a cheatin' ice queen with a heart like shards of cold broken glass. The shapeshifter is a seductress kinda monster who uses her wiles to send men to their destruction. Her acolytes speak of her in reverent tones. She's eeeeevil because she makes men love her too much, but refuses to be subjugated by that love.

This is ultimately a boy's story about the one that got away, about impotent men cowering in the face of a female power. It's also pretty damned good.

I fully intend to be in the Chowder Society when I grow old.

One of the most popular tweets I ever...uh...tweeted (JoeAverageSF, if you're interested) was "I can't wait to be old. I want to be an old theatrically morbid man like Vincent Price." Well, I want to be like the Chowder Society, the four old men who get together and tell ghost stories, starting each one with the same eerie introduction, "What's the worst thing you've ever done?," followed by the response, "I won't tell you that, but I'll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me...the most dreadful thing..."

Eeeeeee! Creepy!

The old men in the story are really likable and engaging, the setting is genteel, and the tales they tell are genuinely eerie. This book plays toward my taste in quiet, evocative horror and the evil that descends on the gentle old professionals is slow and spooky and delightful.

As much as I enjoyed the book, and I really did, there are a couple things that bug me. It has the feeling of being improvised as the author went along. Antagonists that start out as distant and ghostly suddenly become little chatterboxes as they're encountered later. Behavior, motivations, and patterns shift, and people get a case of the stupids later in the book. There's also a certain aimless passivity to the heroes. They spend most of the book waiting to get got, rather than being proactive in any meaningful sense. The most dynamic step they take is to bring in the nephew of one of their murdered contemporaries, who appears to be haunted by the same spirit.

Speaking of the spirit, one of the big questions that bugged me about the book is the antagonist's motivations. She's an immortal shapeshifter who is clearly contemptuous of humanity, yet she wastes decades of her existence hassling four random chumps in an isolated small town? Really? Is her evil that banal and unimaginative? The story would have made more sense if she were an actual ghost haunting them because ghosts tend to fixate on a subject. The creature at the center of Ghost Story ultimately came off as petty.

I do want to make mention of something that I found sort of appealing, which was the relationship between Stella and Ricky Hawthorne.

I think we're living in an age where people are becoming more skeptical about the idea of monogamy. Maybe it's the fact that I'm safely ensconced in a bubble of Brooklyn dating, where being "friends with benefits" is too much commitment, and I'm a Dan Savage devotee who read Sex at Dawn a couple times, but my view of human relationships tends to be a little more...progressive than the mainstream.

Horror, as I've often said, is a fundamentally conservative genre. It's all about the status quo and it's often written by people who hold fairly traditionalist views. That attitude is often an asset, as horror is usually about drawing firm black-and-white lines between good and evil, but it tends to falter around deviations in human behavior.

Somehow, Ricky and Stella work. She cheats, he knows about it, and all seems well. On paper, it appears that she can't help herself and he loves her enough to tolerate it. I suppose to some people that would appear to be a catastrophic state of being, but they seem happy. It works for them, and I liked their dynamic, even if I felt she was a throwaway character.

One of the weird things I took away from reading Ghost Story was the fact that it was less effective as it became a more traditional horror novel.

As a tale of four old men, haunted by a tragedy, who find cathartic release by telling ghost stories to one another, it was a great, evocative book. Once they're knife-fighting developmentally disabled werewolf boys in movie theaters, the book became garish and kinda goofy. Still, the book works. I like the characters, I like their world, I liked the pacing (which was eerie, but not foot-draggingly slow), and I liked the little moments of creepy terror. The dreams, the visits from dead friends, the moments of isolation and menace were all wonderfully done.

I have a litmus test when I read horror fiction. First I look at the non-horror elements. Do they hang together? Are the characters compelling? Do I give a shit about who they are and how they interact and collide against each other? Basically, could they hold up in a book without the horror elements? I absolutely felt that Ghost Story passed this test. There are a lot of challenging, engaging characters and they were all richly detailed and fascinating.

The second part of my litmus test is studying the horror elements. Are they original, or at least engaging? Do they improve the human drama or do they just get in the way? Do they make sense? Are they scary? For me Ghost Story mostly passed the test. When the threat was more ephemeral, when the demon facing the the Chowder Society was more vaguely defined, it was an effective horror story. Once we got to know Eva Galli, she became more of an annoyance than anything else.

I was actually a little bit spooked as I read the book because many of the elements of the novel are very similar, and probably better done, to elements of the novel I'm writing for my MFA.

Old friends tied by strange social rituals and a violent crime. An ethereal menace that lurks in the shadows and begins a campaign of psychological warfare before striking with sudden, decisive violence. A strongly defined setting that the characters play off of and experience in their own unique ways.

Screw it. Straub can call a good tune. I will dance to it.

Overall, I give this book my bump. I enjoyed reading it and I think it's a solid introduction to Straub's key work. It's recommended for fans of more subdued, quiet horror.

Also, the movie is pretty good, too.


Christopher Shearer said...

Seriously, Joe, you liked the movie? It ranks up there with THE KEEP and MIDNIGHT MASS as one of the worst movie adaptations of a great horror novel ever.

This was a good, well thought-out post about my second favorite book of all time. I love Straub. He had a run in the late 70's early 80's of just great, great books, starting with this one, then SHADOWLAND (a darker and meaner Harry Potter), FLOATING DRAGON (all-out bloody supernatural horror), and then KOKO, where he really found the voice he's used since (and his best novel). You made some great points, and I agree with most of them. I, however, think the characters and the plot hold up a little better than you seem to, but I agree about the book working better before you know who she is--though you had to learn who she was and why she did this. And in regards to that, her spending years haunting these men, why not? A slow death is much worse than a quick one. If she's got all the time in the world, why not torture them?

Creature said...

First off, I am only about a half hour into the movie version, but it's pretty good so far. Has a couple nice scares going for it, the changes make more sense (I like that Ed and Don are father and son) and it has that kinda 70s filmmaking recklessness. It's too early for me to say whether or not it's a great movie or not.

I have not read nearly enough Straub. I really like his style. It's intelligent, sensitive, subtle, and has good pacing. So far, the only other thing I read was A Special Place, which was a brilliant work of psychological horror.

Don't get me wrong, I really liked the characters. I did find them terribly passive, but they were a bunch of little old men, so I am a touch more forgiving. And, yeah, I think my critique of Eva Galli stands. It's a book about a scary woman who uses her alluring aura to mess with a bunch of poor impotent boys. When you look at what she is and the elaborate, multigenerational trap she lays for each character, the whole thing comes off as either incredibly petty or completely irrational. She's clearly not an alien Lovecraftian sort of demon whose motives can't be fathomed by mere mortals. Therefore, she just must be incredibly boring, especially since the way the Chowder Society originally killed her was purely accidental.

Cin Ferguson said...

"Overall, I give this book my bump."


I smiled at the above comment. You write a great commentary. I'm at a disadvantage I guess, with many of these stories, because I've never read them before or seen the moves. As someone who professes to love horror and the horror genre, it's hard for me to realize how little I've indulged in it. I've reflected why this is so, and realize that for years I avoided horror movies because my husband can't stand them, and I've not read many of the novels because of my previous studies in nursing/midwifery/criminal justice and public health. In the academic world there's just no time for the "fun" stuff, the fun reading...and in marriage there are compromises that one has to make.

I'm making less compromises in the area of horror now, though, and take myself to the movies such as "Final Destination 5" and "Fright Night", and our "Readings in the Genre" are now an academic requirement making me wish I'd started studying writing fiction much earlier in my life.

Still, I enjoyed this tale. Particularly in comparison to our other required readings. I found Straub's language the best. It was evocative, descriptive and he used a prose that drew me in and made me not mind some of the inconsistencies that you pointed out. I loved the way he painted some of his scenes...so that I could really see them. :)

I'm wondering how the next novels we attack will compare.

Take care,


Creature said...

Q: I don't read a lot of horror either because the vast majority of horror sucks.

Sometimes that puts me at a huge disadvantage. Chris knows waaaaay more about the specifics of the genre than I ever will and I defer to him for the inside scoop (or at least to make sure whatever i'm doing hasn't been done too similarly before) but most of the time I read outside the genre or I read non fiction or...gasp...literary work.

When I am not doing this stuff, I write comic books and you can always tell the other comic creators who ONLY read comic books. The problem with their writing style can be politely boiled down toeing unambitious.

I do think you need to get some exposure to this stuff so you can get a sense of construction and what elements work best in a given genre but most horror really is bad and after awhile the sponge that is your brain starts picking up the nasty ass silt at the bottom of the pool.

So don't sweat it. This class is meant to introduce you to the good stuff. The rest will take care of itself.

Jennifer Loring said...

"She's an immortal shapeshifter who is clearly contemptuous of humanity, yet she wastes decades of her existence hassling four random chumps in an isolated small town? Really? Is her evil that banal and unimaginative? The story would have made more sense if she were an actual ghost haunting them because ghosts tend to fixate on a subject. The creature at the center of Ghost Story ultimately came off as petty."

Thank you. This is my second reading of the book, and that is still my biggest problem with it. Her motivations are extremely lacking; pettiness is very annoying, but it's just not that scary. Though I love Straub's writing, I agree there is way too much shifting going on, and not in a good way.

John Dixon said...

Good post, Joe. I like that you gave a layered response rather than focusing on one aspect or tying everything up neatly.

I can't argue with your opening complaint, but luckily I'm already an old man, and my eyes have developed thick cataracts where gender issues are concerned. If there's a good story to be had, I apparently miss all that other stuff altogether... and it's blissful, being able to enjoy story without the distraction of lit crit politics.

Luckily for you, you seem to be one of those relatively rare individuals who can go all lit crit political and still enjoy the story, too.

Creature said...

Aw, thanks, Johnny D!

I actually think it's really important to acknowledge the cultural context/subtext that works underneath the surface of a story, especially with a genre as symbolism-heavy as the horror genre. I joke about my hyper liberalism because you have to have a sense of humor about stuff, but I do believe that the tales we tell reflect who we are as a people and not all of it is good.

I don't think the book is fundamentally misogynistic. It was just an interesting observation to pick up on.

Kristina said...

We have big plans for when we're old. You'll be in the Chowder Society, and I'm going to be in the Society for Old Lady Stereotypes. I plan to wear purple and a red hat and adopt nine cats and power walk shopping malls.
I think you'll have a better time than I will, though. :)

I really like your observations. I think you touched a nerve when you mention that the book kinda feels like Straub improvised as he went a long. A lot of the other blogs mention how the opening and novel and the ending don't really mesh well together.

I improvise a lot as I go, but I hope I can do a good job at hiding it. I'd hate to be published one day and find someone on a blog making a (solid) observation like that.

And yeah...although I liked the villainy that is Eva Galli, it did seem like it was weird she devoted SO MUCH time to messing with these people. Banal is right. I know the novel can be only so long, but given that Straub tied her into a lot of epic, mythic creatures, you'd think Eva would think bigger.

A said...

Oh, Joe, you crack me up, yet your post is so great too. I love the way that you describe the eeeeevil ladies that are a good part of the book. See, I'm out of luck for Chowder Society membership - I'll have to settle to be the Milly who tries to eavesdrop.

I also liked the relationship between Stella and Ricky - maybe because I liked the character of Ricky, or maybe because I thought the little storyline with Stella and her many men was interesting to me.

I didn't think about it, but the fact that you brought up the point about the spirit wasting years upon years "haunting" these men does come across as odd and "petty" as you said.

Tanya said...

I enjoyed this post, and I think you had some great points about areas where the book does not hold together.

I didn't really want to mention it in this book because I think I mentioned it in posts about the other two books, but once again, I felt like this book was very anti-female, and maybe that's why I couldn't enjoy it. There is simply nothing in it for me to relate to. Do I want to relate to the evil, murderous bitch, the cold, adultrous trophy wife, or the woman who is willing to let a man treat her as nothing more than a servant? Uh... none of the above, thanks.

I have to disagree, however, with your comment about the book being slow, but not too slow. I think it is an excruciatingly slow read. That's the other reason I can't enjoy it. By the time John Jaffery dies, I want to jump off the bridge with him; I'm so sick of waiting for something to happen.

My other issue with this book is that it is, to me, completely forgettable. I've read it twice, and I can't remember hardly anything that happened. Maybe it's because it all feels so disconnected. I don't know.