Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Book Evaluation: Ghost Story (1979) by Peter Straub

What? No picture!? This is blasphemy, I say! Blasphemy!

I'm just kidding here. I'm supposed to be talking about Ghost Story, one of the most appropriately titled works there ever was. It is about, you guessed it, a ghost story. Well, technically it is about multiple ghost stories, some absolutely fictitious, and some... well, less so.

The novel revolves around four members of a group called the Chowder Society, who have, for fifty years, been telling ghost stories to one another. The whole tagline of this book should be something like: This is where ghost stories... come true... because that's exactly what happens. There was once a fifth member of their group who died suddenly and unexpectedly at a party to celebrate a visiting actress years ago. It had looked like he had been frightened to death.

Oh, spooky! Now, I jest, of course, but ghost stories tend to not interest me in the slightest. It makes no difference whether I believe in ghosts or not, ghosts do not seem to really have the power to carry an entire novel. Most of the great ghost stories are, in fact, short stories or novellas at most. This is because ghost stories need that vague attitude about them to usually be effective. They need to take place at an indeterminate time and in a place that has old history to it. Well, that's usually what ghost stories are like, but this one is different. This novel is much less a ghost story and much more something else entirely.

Eventually, the Chowder Society seems to be seeing some fairly mysterious stuff and call on a member's nephew, Donald, who has written on the occult, to take a look. Donald is a man who has his own emotion issues, mostly with a woman named Alma Mobley. She was a grad student that he worked with and fell in love with in his time at Berkeley. He became enamored with her and then almost obsessed, all the while she acted like something unreal. She would frequently lie to him, unbeknownst to him, and eventually she left without a trace as he debated doing something drastic. Afterwards he investigated their time together and found all lies, nothing but lies surrounding her... then suddenly, one day his brother, dead in the present part of the novel, becomes engaged to one Alma Mobley. Well, that might have been fine, but soon after David, Donald's brother, was dead, and Alma gone again.

When one of the members of the Chowder Society dies, the rest decide to tell Donald the horrible truth of Eva Galli, the woman that they kind of killed and tried to hide the body of. Well, they attempted to because the body simply wasn't there in their trunk when they went to bury it. A lynx was near the car instead, glaring at them. And they believed that she was Eva Galli, a manitou, or shape-shifter who lives much longer than humans. Making the connections, they also believe that this thing was Alma Mobley as well.

Eventually as others die, they are joined by a man named Peter, and learn of a woman named Florence de Peyser, who seems to have control over the undead people and the manitou herself. Eventually, they track Eva/Alma down and defeat her, but she escapes before they can finish the job. Donald vows to go and find her and leaves soon afterward. He finds a young girl whom he believes to be the next form of Eva. The novel starts off with this and ends with this eerie young girl. Eventually she turns into a wasp and Donald kills her, then makes the promise to go after de Peyser in California.

The story is only part of Ghost Story. The plot, although important, only plays a small role to why this novel is so good. And it is very good, beautiful and brilliant in idea and execution, despite being a ghost story in name only. There are no ghosts here. Supernatural elements, certainly, but no ghosts. Ghosts are spirits of the dead, or even demons if you're being generous. Ghosts are not shape-shifters or creatures that can take the form of people. These are instead old Native American spirits of good and ill.

The idea of the story within a story, the little ghost stories inside of the large narrative are brilliantly handled as well, amazing set pieces to make the novel absolutely memorable. A memorable book does not make a good book, but a good book makes a memorable one. The ending, Eva and Alma, and the atmosphere of the novel stuck with me for so long after reading this novel for the first time years ago. It made me understand what horror could be if executed correctly.

Now, I have to talk about Peter Straub because, in my opinion, he is a terribly underrated novelist. The guy exudes atmosphere from every sentence. He's a better writer than almost any other horror writer I can think about, even Stephen King. The way he writes is brilliant, even in his less interesting novels, because he paces superbly, and every tangent has a reason to it, everything feels real, even when it obviously isn't real. And the atmosphere of his novels is basically the best set pieces to the novels since Lovecraft wrote some of his best works. In mentioning Ghost Story, I have to mention Shadowlands, which is also by him, and in someways is the more superior novel out of the two just because of how intricate the plot actually is.

Peter Straub is such a fantastic writer of horror-fiction and this novel shows it time and time again. Reading it is like going through the old horror novelists in turn... Algernon Blackwood, H. P. Lovecraft, Henry James, and M. R. James... he represents all fo them here, all of the old ghost stories that aren't that frightening to us today because of language, word use, or pure boring imaginations on our parts, are again made horrific here in the modern setting of Peter Straub's world. Here is one of the best ghosts stories of all time, paced  and written like a ghost story around the turn of the last century, but involving no real ghosts at all. In many ways this is the last great ghost story, the one that tops all of the rest... and of course the master of horror that Peter Straub is would be the one to write it.

I recommend this novel with every fiber of my being. It needs to be read. Go, find it, and read it. You won't be disappointed.

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