You Are a Ghost

I first read Peter Straub’s Ghost Story years ago, when pleasure reading was something I still had time to do. Back then it wasn’t the writing that disappointed me–Straub is a masterful writer (read his short story “The Juniper Tree”), and few are as capable of the same rich characterizations; I felt like I truly knew–and liked–the men of the Chowder Society. It wasn’t that the book didn’t scare me–it didn’t, but there are genuinely creepy sections, like the opening scenes with Don Wanderley and Angie, or Sears’s tale of Fenney Bate. These passages occur before the introduction of the “shapeshifter” concept; when, on my first reading, I believed we were still dealing with ghosts, they were extremely effective in setting a very creepy tone for the book.

Then Straub tells us that we’re not dealing with ghosts at all, but the creatures responsible for all of our stories concerning the supernatural, and I felt…cheated. This is still the weakest aspect of the book for me, as I do not find Straub’s shapeshifters to be particularly frightening. That they ultimately stem from the human imagination, but can manifest in reality and kill simply because they enjoy it, was unsatisfying to me. I’m not one of those people who needs everything explained to them in big red letters (in fact, I prefer if you don’t insult my intelligence, thank you), but I do appreciate when an author takes the time to develop his or her villains and their motivations as deeply as the protagonists. Why Milburn? Why these men? The elements are all in place, and Straub is certainly capable of weaving them together in an interesting way, but he spends so much time on character studies of Milburn’s citizens (as wonderful as those passages are–this book is never boring) that the plot never has a chance to develop as cohesively as it should have. In my mind, the more frightening story here would be that of a spirit, the physical manifestation of the psychological haunting that each of these men are experiencing, returning over and over again to torment them and all associated with them. You know, the ghost story we were led to believe we were reading before the plot drifted inexplicably toward shapeshifting. The shapeshifter aspect, because it’s underdeveloped, feels tacked on–the epilogue is the worst offender–and, at points, just plain silly. I applaud Straub for attempting to do something new with the ghost story; unfortunately it didn’t quite work.

Having said all that, let’s get down to what does work in this book. Setting plays a vital role in Ghost Story, and for me it gets personal. I grew up in a New York town, smaller and far less charming than Straub’s Milburn, but with the same social stratification and the same sense of claustrophobia. Being on the low end of the social totem pole (hmm…pun not intended–my town is on a Seneca reservation), I couldn’t wait to get out. To have winter arrive in October and last until April was not uncommon and added to the feeling of being trapped, much like the citizens of Milburn. Snow, with its attendant wind chills often dipping tens of degrees below zero, was our frequent antagonist. The nearest city of any note was close to 20 miles away; Buffalo was almost 60. Nestled into a valley just off the highway, the town felt as cut off from civilization as you could get. We couldn’t even sustain our own hospital. You wanted to see a movie? Forget about today’s multiplexes–our theater was lodged in an all but abandoned mall downtown; two theaters, running films six months after their initial release. Setting was what pulled me into Ghost Story the first time around–I’d essentially spent my childhood in Milburn–and it pulled me in this time. I felt that oppressiveness all over again, and on that level Straub connected with me as a reader.

I did not dislike this book by any means; however, I feel that it would have been much more effective as a traditional ghost story. Reading it a second time, I’m convinced the Ghost Story that could have been–and almost was–was a better book than the one actually written.  

Published by Jennifer Loring

Jennifer Loring’s short fiction has appeared in the anthologies Tales from the Lake vols. 1 and 4, Nightscript IV, Dim Shores Presents Volume 2, and the Bram Stoker Award-nominated Not All Monsters and Arterial Bloom, among many others. She holds an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction with a concentration in horror fiction and is currently working toward a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies - Humanities & Culture, focusing on queer possibility in fairy tales. Jenn lives in Philadelphia, PA, where she and her husband are owned by a turtle and two basset hounds.

5 thoughts on “You Are a Ghost

  1. The more I think about Ghost Story, the more certain I am that the whole thing was improvised as Straub went along. The book has a GREAT opening, with the weird little girl saying "I am you." That's ethereal and dreamily menacing. Turns out it's just a mind fuck from an arrogant, petty demon? Not only is that lame, it doesn't fit her behavior at all during the book. All her little tricks and traps and deadfalls were total Xanatos Roulettes (google it) and it strained credibility. One of the things I've been turning over since I read it was how very Stephen King-like Milburn was. I think the two authors influence each other's work, though I'm not familiar enough with Straub's stuff to say which direction the influence goes.


  2. I got that feeling of improvisation from it as well. The set-up in the prologue was brilliant, and then the book sinks bit by bit into her endless trickery, and to what end? Xanatos Roulettes indeed. Why on earth would she wait 50 years to set her plan into motion, and then make it so needlessly complicated?


  3. I've always looked at GHOST STORY as the quintessential modernist horror story. I'm a big fan of Henry James, as is Straub, and I see a lot of James in all his work–though much more prominent in his early novels (including this one). James liked to play with POV and misunderstanding and the psychology of misunderstanding. Straub does the same, and I've always thought that that was what was happening with the ghost story to shapeshifter aspect, but maybe I'm looking for an explanation to something that is hard to piece together.


  4. Is Straub's "The Juniper Tree" the retelling of THAT Juniper Tree story? Regarding your initial feelings about being cheated by the monsters in Ghost Story, I agree with you. It turned me off. Especially when it was called so many things. My brain cannot picture a Belle Dame and a Manitou in the same room without one killing the other. I prefer things to remain unnamed if it is something that can have MANY names. However…as I rehashed in other posts, I changed my mind about how I felt in regards of the ghosts being more of a symbol of the imagination and its manifest dangers. I went off on a Belle Dame tangent, and that's what made the book appealing to me because I have a soft spot for Pre-Raphaelites. As long as I kept thinking of Ghost Story "mythically," it worked for me. On a simple story level (you know, character, plot, pacing, etc) not as much.


  5. Yeah, Jennifer. What was up with that ending?? Haha. I felt the idea of their imaginations fueling the "shapeshifter" creature/figment interesting, but I also was setting myself up for a ghost story. Go figure? Straub mastered the intricate plot so well and I too never thought it was boring, just somewhat long winded at times. You had an inside factor..basically growing up in Milburn. See, I grew up in a small town too, but in CA and where you feel akin to SNOW, I feel it towards HEAT. Still, small towns are creatures in themselves. I think the weather aspect helped the story acheive that eerie, desolate feeling. I definitely liked this story, but the ending was a let down. Where's the sequel?? Haha. Peter must have a Chowder Society somewhere…


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