Rating: 3/5 stars
”What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? I won’t tell you that, but I’ll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me…the most dreadful thing…”
With a teaser of that caliber, I instinctively knew this would be good. How good, though? Good enough to validate its predominantly positive reception? Enough to justify its hype? Only time would tell.
Ghost Story, Peter Straub’s 1979 horrific thriller, was the epitome of a slow burn. Several months ago, a friend asked what I meant by that. It was the lengthy exposition, I said, enjoying the nature of the conversation. It was the reality of after a very compelling, linear and original opening, which was just over twenty pages, a daunting exposition followed, which pulled me out of the story arc. What I didn’t realize at the time, though, was that Straub was gradually submerging me into the heart of the arc itself; into the genesis of everything.
How was it unique? Through Straub’s thought-provoking word choice, only it went deeper than that. Much, much deeper. It was the mysterious nature of it all, and the way he constructed the narrative and the ways it unfolded. It was the exquisite character development, and how their individual motives were wrapped up—almost cocoon-like—in themselves; mummified memories, profoundly buried.
Naturally, I expected more of the same, but what Straub delivered was completely different. In hindsight, the second section was both more and less than what came before. What made Ghost Story such a slow burn wasn’t its moderately slow plot, or the plethora of meticulous details. Rather, it was the myriad methods that Straub implemented to weave his tale, flitting forward, backward, side to side, with an infrequent flash forward, and back again. It was all kind of disorientating. In those moments, there was a lot of exploration taking place, to the point that experimentation could have been a recurring theme. That’s not what was going on, though. Over time, an overwhelming sense overcame me that Straub didn’t know what the novel was supposed to be, or what he wanted to achieve. I wasn’t sure that he knew the most efficient way to execute his vision.
What was he trying to achieve? I wish I knew. I do know, however, that I liked and especially appreciated his multiple directions approach, which was enriched with powerful and stunning prose. I cannot emphasize that enough, and I’d willingly submerge myself in oceans of his beautiful words. There were numerous times when I wanted to keep going–when I had to know which insanity was coming next– but I stumbled, and necessity demanded I go back to reread various sentences, sections, even whole chapters. My appetite was insatiable. Much of the forward and back maneuvers revolved around the disturbing experiences of his cast of colorful characters, known affectionately as the Chowder Society: Frederick “Ricky” Hawthorne, James Sears, Lewis Benedikt, John Jaffrey, and from the outside but official members nonetheless, the Wanderley trio (Edward, David, and my personal favorite, Donald.)
None of these things hindered me from trudging on. They never detracted from the experience. In fact, they added to the whole. The deeper I went, the more complex everything became, and with approximately thirteen distinct perspectives, including the town of Milburn, New York itself, such a feat was both impressive and unsurprising. Heightening that sense of awe was its omniscient style, which is not easy. Very few can execute it, let alone as masterfully as Straub does here, in his fifth novel.
That less than ideal pace went on for several chapters, wherein the Wisconsin weaver of thrills and chills skirted relentlessly-almost playfully– around the engaging narrative. Surprising because logically, such storytelling techniques usually aren’t successful, and practically unheard of in modern horror. In my experience, Ghost Story and Stephen King’s Needful Things, are amongst a select few that pulled this off. I’d toss in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, too, only it’s not horror. There are probably a few other successful omniscient stories, but the only other one to spring to mind is Sometimes a Great Notion.
The exposition and pacing was so off-putting, initially, that I almost never finished. You see, in October of 2016, I’d embarked on it as part of a buddy read with the incomparable Holly Torres, but I stopped eighty pages in. I think we stopped at roughly the same place, actually. In March of 2018, we began again. Round Two was completely different. I embraced the uniqueness and originality; the pace was no longer problematic.
Sometimes timing and mentality really are everything.
”Mind you, you’ll take my advice. There’s no teaching without beating… The ferule’s all the help he needs. He’s not bad, he’s badness itself. You should make him bleed and keep him quiet—keep him down.
So as engaging as the first half was, it wasn’t until the back half that the intensity took full shape, and its subtle shift from past to present was more pronounced. The timing was pretty much perfection. Not too fast or slow, but just right. Simply stated: I cannot imagine Ghost Story any other way…in this regard, at least.
That being said, I implied to my friend, who was increasingly intrigued, you’d think the honed in direction would denote improvement (which it did, to an extent,) but the latter chapters also revealed a nearly all-consuming passivity emanating amongst the Chowder Society. There were others, but mostly, it was the elders. Retrospectively, I think the reason why I didn’t grasp their flaws earlier was because their past experiences (ghost stories, if you will,) were conveyed through first-person narration. For instance, Sears James’ gripping account of Fenny and Gregory Bate. Essentially, the past can be glossed over because the narrator’s only telling pertinent details, but the present should primarily reside in your face. Should being the operative verbiage.
I cannot emphasize this enough–(view spoiler)
Overall, Ghost Story was very disappointing. However, nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction that I felt after reading the ending. It angers me and I feel cheated. More than anything, I’m saddened because I must believe that Straub had a more satisfying story—one with a significantly larger scope—deep inside him, begging to be written. I think he wanted to do it justice, but for reasons which bewilder me (save cowardice,) he never pursued that. I can only imagine what Ghost Storycould have been if he’d taken the time, energy, and bravery necessary for greatness.
Funny how lost this country seems, though people have been walking back and forth over it for hundreds of years. It looks bruised and regretful, its soul gone or withdrawn, waiting for something to happen to wake it up again.