Retro Review: “Ghost Story” (1979)

GhostStoryNovel1Peter Straub novels seem to defy description. A Dark Matter was good, but I didn’t really know what to do with it. It was, in retrospect, kind of an extended meditation on one possible form that the supernatural, if such a thing exists, might take. And again, that’s a good thing; but it’s a challenge to review.

Ghost Story is, in many ways, quite similar. It also explores the idea of the supernatural, positing, as many horror-ish stories do, that the supernatural traditions of the world are all attempts to describe beings that are essentially beyond human ken. Folklorist Catherine Tosenberger, in a great article that I’ve cited numerous times, calls this a “recovery story,” a narrative that is as much a discussion of what folklore “really” is as it is a story in its own right [1]. And this meta-dimension is actually a major part of the story: if supernatural beings exist, what impact do the stories we tell about them have on the shapes they assume and the interactions they have with humans?

In what is, I’m sure, a deliberate irony, Ghost Story really is not, in any appreciable sense, a ghost story. There are some creatures that one might classify as undead–as revenants, in fancy folklore-talk–but no ghosts as such. Splitting semantic hairs is pointless, of course; but since folklore and folk belief and traditional storytelling and all that stuff is central in Straub’s novel, it’s actually not a trivial distinction.

Before I get too carried away, maybe you’re wondering what the book is actually about. Well GUESS WHAT, I’ma tell you.

The Chowder Society, a group of old friends living in a small town called Milburn, in upstate New York, meet regularly for semi-formal storytelling sessions. Recently their stories have taken a macabre turn, ever since their friend, Edward Wanderley, died in mysterious and spoiler-ish ways. Then, somebody else dies. And then, let’s see… mm…

…seriously, this is hard. Straub is a master when it comes to narrating place. Milburn is as close to a real town as any fictional town I’ve encountered. His descriptions of the place, and of the daily patterns of its inhabitants, are so complete that I really feel I could find my way around Milburn if I ever found myself walking its snow-clogged streets. But as great as Straub’s evocation of sense of place is, the actual forward motion of the narrative is difficult to chart. He deliberately meanders back and forth between numerous points in time, revealing chunks of the story at widely-spaced intervals across the book’s 567 pages. We learn, slowly, that there’s a “dark secret” in the Chowder Society’s past, and it’s come back to haunt them in a literal sense. When it gets too creepy for the old guys to handle, they enlist the help of Wanderley’s nephew Don, a novelist whose book “The Nightwatchers” apparently convinces the Chowder Society’s members that Don knows a thing or two about the supernatural. I guess.

Things get a little confusing, with all the traipsing back and forth in narrative time, and the intense, almost obsessive descriptions of landscape and weather; but it ultimately emerges that the supernatural being stalking the Chowder Society (and, in fact, threatening all of Milburn) isn’t a ghost at all, but some sort of mysterious elder being, a shape-shifting demon-like entity that wields powerful illusions and has the ability to create vampire-like ghoul servants out of folks what done did died. It’s these vampiric servants who actually do most of the killing in the novel, while the big baddy remains aloof, popping in occasionally to gloat and monologue about how inferior humans are.

These frustrations aside, Ghost Story still has a lot to commend it. Straub, skilled as he is with descriptions of place, is equally talented at depicting complex human relationships. He’s particularly good at capturing the subtleties of romance and the complex dynamics between couples. And that, ultimately, is what Ghost Story seems to be about: it’s about how human relationships flex and bend and sometimes break; and it’s an exploration of how such relationships might deal with the incursion of an impossible, alien evil.

Folklore plays a big role here, as I indicated before. Don suggests that the supernatural beings he and the Chowder Society face are “the originals of everything that scares us in the supernatural. I think in stories we make them manageable. But the stories at least show that we can destroy them” (422). (There’s also an anthropologist character who is just an ass.) A strength of the novel is precisely that the characters learn that they can fight back, that they don’t have to just wait to be victimized. I appreciate that immensely from a genre that’s usually hopeless.

Ghost Story isn’t frightening, and it’s really not a story about ghosts. It’s quite slow and focuses so closely on the lives of very old people that some editions come with a free AARP membership. But it’s thoughtful, and it takes its subject matter seriously, and if you have the time to invest it’s well worth the read.

icecream3I plan to do a review of the 1981 film version soon, so check back to see if, you know… I’ve done that.

UPDATE: Here’s my review of the film.

[1] Tosenberger, Catherine. “‘Kinda Like the Folklore of Its Day’: ‘Supernatural,’ Fairy Tales, and Ostension.” Text.Serial.Journal. Transformative Works and Cultures, March 14, 2010. 5.2.

3 thoughts on “Retro Review: “Ghost Story” (1979)

  1. Great review, I haven’t read the book but I love the film. It was so atmospheric and Alice Kridge(?) was wonderfully sinister. It sounds like the film condensed things a lot – I did get the impression that she was clearly not just a peeved murder victim but the film didn’t seem to dwell to much on her otherness.

    I may just have to stalk you until you do a review of the film – but not in a creepy or supernatural way of course ;0)

    • Thanks, Lenora! I’m going to try to watch the film soon, maybe in the next day or two. I’ve seen it already, but it’s been years now and I’ve forgotten the details. I know it’s quite different from the book, though.

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