Ghost 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.