This was supposed to be a brief review of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, a book that some critics have called “one of the most frightening novels you will ever read.” I think most readers are familiar with the story (it’s been out since 1979, and still feels remarkably fresh and modern to today’s reader, although perhaps the lack of cell phones might be a sore point. I never even noticed it, but I’m from that generation, BC – before cells.)
I did find the four original main characters hard to relate to (old rich white dudes) and their world – of dreaming of sidewalks and small town prosperity overly stuffy and pretentious. And although the pacing really picked up and I loved the nonlinear plot, after a wicked opening, I found the following chapters pretty slow and filled with names of too many people that I really didn’t care about.
Until the bodies started stacking up.
And that’s part of the thrill of horror – we want people to die. We want them to die in the most gruesome way possible, and relish the spectacle of horror.
A scene inside a movie theatre in which Night of the Living Dead is playing becomes a creep show on top of a creep show – the body count is already high, and we’re watching (or reading) through gorey splatter to see if our heroes will emerge victorious. (They do, of course, for now.)
So what’s so great about Ghost Story – a story essentially about rich white dudes who have their comfortable little existence rocked a little?
It’s about us.
That’s it my friends, it’s about our nightmares, our dreams, and our stories. It’s about chasing a Manitou, a shape shifter that has lived at the edges of human campfires for centuries – the thing that goes bump in the night in all cultures – that creepy feeling when you go down the basement stairs or that shadow just outside the corner of your eye.
The opening chapter was freakin brilliant – a child is abducted, and we don’t know who she is, who he is, or what’s going to happen to her – we are left with the unsettling feeling something is not right when she replies to her repeated requests to tell him (our unnamed character) who she is – and she says simply – I am you.
And that is the crux of this novel. I am you.
We invite them (whoever they are) in. With our words, with our fiction, with our stories. These are the lies and truths all mixed together we tell ourselves (it is fiction, after all, isn’t it?)
And Ghost Story does a fantastic job of blending it all together and showing us what we really don’t want to see. (But c’mon, you just want to take a peek, don’t you?)
There is enough self-indulgent self-awareness in the novel (one of the main characters is a writer, and I normally hate that kind of stuff, unless it’s essential to the plot, which it is) that we are left staring frankly at the mirror in our hand, and see ourselves.
And man, that is spooky.
In honour of low tech and pre-internet worlds, I’ve included a worn out page from my copy, rather than just typing our slick quotes on your computer screen. They follow below (all images Copyright Peter Straub, Berkley Books, 1979, although my pics are from a 2016 version).
And give it a read for the first time (or the millionth time ’round) and you’ll see something scary as you invite them in.
For, I am you.
Liz McAdams is a writer living in the wilds of Canada with her black cats and her laptop (the wifi’s pretty good in the boonies). She loves themes of loss, love, and change – all with a twist of something else entirely.