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.