BOOK REVIEW: GHOST STORY, by Peter Straub

GhostStory StraubGhost Story, by Peter Straub kicks off with a promising start. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? Asks the very first line (Straub 3). The prologue concerns a writer, Don Wanderley, who is driving south, patiently avoiding cities and large towns, because he has a kidnapped young girl in his car. As he drives, day and night, it soon becomes apparent that this is not the horrible child-murderer-with-an-innocent-victim-in-his-car story you originally thought. Instead, the “scary adult” is soon revealed to be a scared adult. The little girl is in charge and Don fears for his sanity and his life.

The story wanders back and forth through time and place, dipping in and out of several characters’ lives, at a leisurely pace. One by one, we meet four very old men who call themselves The Chowder Society – Frederick “Ricky” Hawthorne; Ricky’s law partner, Sears James; aging lady killer, Lewis Benedict, and Dr. John Jaffrey. Following the mysterious death of their fifth member, Edward Wanderley, a year earlier, they began spending their evenings in Milburn, NY telling each other ghost stories. Gradually, reluctantly, they realize that they have all been having nightmares, the same nightmares. They decide to invite Edward’s nephew, Don, a successful writer of supernatural tales to come to town. They hope he can debunk the irrational, but growing conviction they all have, that something terrible is stalking them.

Straub, being more of a literary horror writer than his contemporary, Stephen King, is interested in the really slow burn approach to horror, so he spends countless pages weaving together a rather unique ghost story that actually has no ghosts. In this tale, the thing that haunts the members of the Chowder Society is regret. Regret over an accident that occurred while they were all together with a woman called Eva Galli. The secret behind that event is what now stalks these men, intent on destroying not just them, but the entire town.

This is the second time I have read Ghost Story, and I have to say, the experience was slightly less painful than the first time I dove in, all eager and heedless of the cost to my sanity. This time I began to see what some reviewers have been raving about all along – the complex structure, the interesting story alleyways the reader is lead down, the scope of the novel. I also enjoyed the creepy and mysterious “A. M.” who kept popping up, bewitching and then destroying the men she met. However, despite this tiny, grudging admiration for Straub’s skills and techniques, I still found myself sighing in exasperation at every turn, wondering where was the story going now? And that’s the fundamental flaw with this novel, I believe. No matter how well done the total effect is, when the reader is constantly checking to see how many pages are still left in a chapter before they can turn out the light, then the suspense and tension usually associated with horror never gets a chance to build.

 

 

Straub, Peter, Ghost Story. New York: Pocket Books, a division of Simon and Schuster, 1979. Print.

BOOK REVIEW: HELL HOUSE, by Richard Matheson

 

Hell House, by Richard Matheson, is one of the best haunted house novels ever written.  It takes the basic premise of The Haunting of Hill House – that there’s a scientist and his wife, and two people who have had prior experience with the paranormal; and that together they will spend a week in a very famous haunted house for the purpose of scientific research into the supernatural – and really takes it up several notches.

The first thing I noticed was an immediate build-up of tension. Matheson creates tension in Hell House in a couple of very effective ways: the book is broken into days, rather than chapters, which gives the feeling of time inexorably moving forward, no matter what; the time stamps introducing each scene are listed in a way that is somehow unnerving, such as 3:17 p.m., 11:47 a.m., 6:11 p.m.; as if we are always just missing the hands at three, or twelve, or six.

As far as the actual story goes, it has a classically ominous beginning to a haunted house tale. A dying billionaire, Rolf Rudolph Deutsch, hires Dr. Lionel Barrett, a physicist with an interest in parapsychology, along with two mediums: Florence Tanner, former Hollywood actress and now a mental medium and Spiritualist; and Benjamin Franklin Fisher, a physical medium and the only survivor of an earlier attempt to investigate Hell House in 1940. Deutsch is willing to pay them $100,000 each to bring him proof that the afterlife either exists or it doesn’t. He gives them one week to accomplish this. When Dr. Barrett asks Deutsch how he is supposed to do all that in a week, Deutsch tells him he has just purchased the Belasco House in Maine, and that’s where they will find their answers. “Hell House?” [Asked Barrett] Something glittered in the old man’s eyes. “Hell House,” he said (2). Barrett agrees, on one condition: Deutsch’s people have to build a special machine he needs, and deliver it to Hell House as soon as possible.

Before everyone meets at the Belasco House, we briefly meet each character and learn their reasons for taking on such a terrifying challenge. Florence needs the money to build a proper church for her Spiritualist congregation; Fisher feels like he’s finally ready to confront Hell House once again – he’s not a weak, gullible fifteen-year-old anymore; Barrett (who had polio as a child and still walks with a limp) wants his theory about the nature of psychic energy verified and recognized; Edith Barrett wants only to be allowed to stay by her husband’s side – they were apart once for three weeks because of his work and she nearly had a nervous breakdown.

Once everyone has gathered at the house, Dr. Barrett tells them what they’re in for, and why it’s called “Hell House”: the wealthy owner, Emeric Belasco, created his very own “Hell on Earth” where every blasphemy and perversion was not only encouraged among his guests, but enforced on them.  Edith comes across Barrett’s list of all the phenomena observed in Hell House over the years – it has one hundred and six items on it, starting with “Apparitions” and ending with “Xenoglossy”.  Edith is appalled. My God, she thought. What kind of a week was it going to be? (29)

Each character approaches Hell House in a different way. Florence Tanner roams the house “wide open” looking for poor, hurt souls she can save. Ben Fisher keeps himself, and his psychic abilities, locked down tight, so nothing can get in and hurt him. Dr. Barrett is appropriately skeptical and scientific – even though he acknowledges the mediums’ abilities, he disputes that they are actually doing what they think they’re doing. Edith Barrett never gets very far from her husband’s side; she is his own, personal ghost.

It’s not long before the house (or is it Belasco?) gets everyone’s measure. Florence becomes convinced that the poor, tortured soul of Belasco’s son, Daniel, is behind all the activity in the house.  Dr. Barrett has a nasty encounter with something down in the basement pool and steam room that terrifies and weakens him. Edith starts sleepwalking through the house in search of carnal gratification, and Fisher’s psychic abilities are locked down tighter than ever: he won’t get fooled again.

As the week progresses, Hell House hits them with everything it’s got. Florence finds Daniel Belasco’s shackled, walled-up mummy in the basement. However, even when Daniel’s body is buried, the attacks and abuse of Florence continues.  Goaded by Dr. Barrett, Fisher is frightened that he might really have lost his abilities so he lets down his guard momentarily; he is predictably attacked by sinister forces. Dr. Barrett’s machine finally arrives. At first it seems to work, and then it doesn’t.

By this time it has become obvious – Hell House has survived by feeding on the fears and insecurities of the people inside it, and with every person it corrupts, and every soul it devours, it grows stronger.

 

 

Matheson, Richard. Hell House. 1971. New York: Bantam Books, 1973. Print.