Ghost Story by Peter Straub

Toby Frost

Well-Known Member
Jan 22, 2008
I thought I would review the third ghost story mentioned by Stephen King in Dance Macabre. The first, The Haunting of Hill House, fell somewhat flat and was, for me, spoiled by inappropriate dialogue and an apparent reluctance to really get stuck in (although I accept that I’m probably in the minority here). The second, The House Next Door, did an excellent job of updating the haunted house story to the modern era. The third, Ghost Story by Peter Straub, is an interesting novel, but something of a damp squib.

It’s not much remembered, but Straub used to be huge. Between about 1975 and 1995, horror was a separate genre and its vampires were actually evil. Some excellent books were written at that time, along with some very bad ones, and most of the writers who prospered in the genre now write other things or nothing at all.

The story goes like this, although it’s told in a different, cleverer, order: five fairly prosperous old men live in a small, pleasant town somewhere in the USA. They meet to tell stories and drink, but share a guilty secret about which they do not talk. A young author contacts them regarding a mysterious woman who seems to have been linked to his brother’s death, and the old men of the Chowder Society realise that the events of their secret seem to be replaying themselves, fifty years on. They join forces with the author to face the reoccurring evil, but it is not finished with them, and, one by one, they start to die.

I can see why King might have liked this book so much: it’s a lot like one of his. The concept, which seems intriguing to begin with, narrows down into “Outside evil threatens a nice little town”, which might as well be a tagline for ‘Salem’s Lot or half a dozen other books. A lot of supporting characters crop up and some get bumped off, but it’s hard to feel much for Farmer Wheatsheaf, Sherriff Buckshot or what-not, because they seem so familiar (and yet, for a British reader, so foreign. It’s a bit like recognising that a bloke in a white robe on a camel is probably meant to be a sheik).

There’s also a feeling that the evil force is from the outside. The best horror stories, I think, are the sort that couldn’t have happened to anyone other than the characters, even where they are completely innocent. The horrors perfectly fit the people they strike. I didn’t really feel that here. The ghost of Ghost Story seems just to want to feel good about itself, be admired, and then kill its admirers.

There’s another issue here. The villain is, ultimately, a succubus, although a subtler one than usual, who seduces her victims with dreams of grandeur, power and companionship as much as with sex. But it kills people in what seems to me to be a very stereotypically feminine way, namely by luring them in before striking when their guard is down (rather than, say, an all-out frontal assault). It’s the same method of attack that Eve used on Adam, and the same, ironically, that Kaa the snake uses on Mowgli in The Jungle Book. The main characters are almost entirely male, and actually come across as old buffers (it goes to Straub’s credit that they are sympathetic, though. They all seem like decent people, if of another age). The heroes succeed largely by resisting the devious wiles of the ghost, after which it is actually rather feeble.

This problem goes beyond any notions of male/female quotas in books, or making female characters “strong” (whatever that means). It weakens the novel by putting the characters too clearly in two camps. One one side, the upstanding old chaps with their whisky and cigars, and on the other, the devious seductress who wants to pick them off (and literally split up the boys’ club in the process – girls spoil everything). It would have been much more interesting to include a character who wasn’t succeptible to the ghost, at least not in the usual way, and a suggestion that one of the old men, Sears, isn’t really interested in women doesn’t get used as well as it could have been. In fairness, Straub can write perfectly good female characters. The wife of one of the old men, Anna, is realistically exasperated and really quite brave, but she just doesn’t get enough to do.

That said, there are some very powerful parts. The section in which the young author tells of his obsession with the ghost is sinister, especially her mysterious links to a person – possibly not human – who seems to be pulling all the strings. The ghost is recognisable as a type who crops up in a lot of fiction, a more refined, creepy, version of the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl of indie cinema. The moment where the villain seems suddenly to admit that she is a ghost is really unsettling - especially when she realises, with a mixture of gloating and sadness, the power she has over men.

Again, there is a very good section where the ghost appears on tape, talking about herself. The sheer vanity of the creature is actually quite unsettling. But overall, it feels a little bit slack, even though the main cast are menaced as much as the town in general. As King himself says in Dance Macabre, a horror story about supernatural evil always runs the risk of lapsing into an unusually bloody adventure story, and this book gets close to that.

So far I have decided that a slightly obscure novel of the ‘Salem’s Lot type is okay, but flawed. But there has to be something more to be got out of it. What would have made this book better?

Well, there’s the obvious answer that the Chowder Society could include someone who was female, gay, or young, or even just rebellious enough not to be a pillar of society. But then, for better or worse, it then would be about a different group of people. Whether or not Straub wanted to explore the psychology of affluent old men in a small town, Ghost Story is about that. The subtler alternative would be, I think, for Straub to have asked “Why these men in particular? What was their weakness or sin that opened them to this sort of attack? Are they really above reproach?” That might mean that, in defending their world, the heroes were forced to question and improve it. As it happens, like the town itself, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time (although they do indeed commit a sin, only once the ghost has picked on them). Would the story be more powerful if, like Frank Cotton in The Hellbound Heart, they actually went looking for this experience, or at least didn’t turn it away, and then couldn’t handle it? I think it would, but then it might not be the same book at all.

This is a slightly pedestrian book, perfectly well-written, whose characters, while coming from a narrow range, are well-depicted. It is probably very much of its time - and as such, throws up some interesting ideas about the stories people are telling now. Compare a sprawling novel like this with tighter, sharper books such as The House Next Door or Ramsay Campbell’s excellent The Doll that Ate its Mother, and you see how ghost stories can be really powerful.

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