annotation by Kate Maruyama
Peter Straub’s GHOST STORY is a lovely slice of the early eighties in so many ways. Everyone drinks copious amounts of alcohol, philanders, smoke cigars. The town of Millburn is an everyday eighties vision Northeastern town, complete with its old-fashioned movie theater, town diner, cantankerous Sheriff and, of course, the requisite handful of millionaires.
At one point, three remaining heroes enter a house which they know is evil and where they know that at least two people have been horrifically murdered and one character says, “I don’t mind if we split up.” And they split up. I got the giggles. But we have to forgive Straub these anachronisms, it was contemporary in 1980 and these characters had not reaped the lessons that Jason, Freddie and Mike Meyers taught us: DON’T SPLIT UP! STAY TOGETHER!
But beyond the eighties-ness of the story is a very involved, character-driven creepfest with no simple answers and mystery woven into every page. Straub frames the story with the tensely written and very creepy kidnapping of a little girl by what seems to be an evil child-killer, he comes around to this story in the end and turns it on its ear. After our introduction in a dirty run down motel in Florida, he takes us to the town of Millburn, so all-American that you know something bad will happen. Straub introduces us to a mass of characters, but takes careful time with each of them, so rather than the stereotypes of the small town we are given actual people with desires and difficulties. (The only exception is the seventies tv style Sheriff Hardesty).
There is great fun had with the Chowder Society, (old farts who assemble and tell scary stories), a mysterious author who arrives in town, local teenagers and, while the main villainess is a classically sexist depiction of a vixen, the well-worn stunning philanderer Stella (wife of one of the above old-farts) is so fascinating and complex, she more than makes up for it. Straub leads us, without rushing, through the eerie happenings of this town and rather than starting all sunshine and ending up in darkness, the book comes over the reader like a storm front. There are flickers of sunshine, spots of darkness, with such steady interspersement so that by the end of the book, I felt like I was living there. This rhythm and the complexity of these characters had me not only fully absorbed, but terrified on such a level that I didn’t want to see what happened next, but had to. I felt each passing and in a book where someone gets bumped off every few chapters, this is quite an accomplishment.
While I’m not about to resurrect horror conventions of the eighties (nor, I imagine is Straub, who is still putting out gripping, presumably contemporary fiction), I find there are lessons to be learned in slowing down, looking around and building tension.
Straub was also careful to give us no easy answer. Something evil is afoot, but it is an intertwined complex answer that reminds us there is no full understanding of the supernatural to be had. Vampires you stake or burn with sun, werewolves silver bullets, but the evil that inhabits this story and this town is deeper and more involved. Its complexity also sets up a barrier for our heroes to outsmart…how to kill the unkillable? How fun to have heroes use their combined knowledge rather than look stuff up in books.
GHOST STORY is a reminder that there are no easy answers in the world of the supernatural, just as there are no easy answers in the human world. As I forge forward with my own ghost story, trying to weave it into a coherent piece, I’m mindful to honor my characters, give them time where they need to breathe and to let the supernatural remain, as it is to us, somewhat powerful and mysterious.