Saturday, April 19, 2014

Ghost Story

     "What's the worst thing you've ever done?"
"Well, I won't tell you that-- but I will tell you the worst thing that's ever happened to me...The most dreadful thing..."

                      Imagine a glass of water. Now imagine someone comes by every half-minute or so and drops a marble into that glass of water. Now, because we're imagining, imagine the lights in wherever you are are timed to drop lower as the glass fills with marbles, and when it overfills, you have the feeling something very bad is going to happen. Plink. Plink. Plink. Each marble driving you closer to some kind of unnerving, unsettling catharsis.

This is what it's like reading Ghost Story

                     I could talk about how it pays homage to the tradition of Gothic novels, how the unsettling nature of sexuality and guilt play a part in the work, but honestly, that's where I want to start. The marbles. The catharsis. Because that's the elegant part. Ghost Story is a brilliant book, a one-of-a-kind book, because it above so many other novels of its type understands subtlety and atmosphere. The book is permeated by it, but offers certain enticing and readable qualities that set it slightly above its drier predecessors. It's not a tight story, but what it lacks in tightness and tension it more than makes up in sheer atmospheric dread and richness of setting. Ghost Story nests its stories, adds stories to the overall framework, and all of it is a brilliant, if unsettling and chilling read. If ever there were a book worth tracking down, worth finding and reading voraciously, this is it

More, as always, below. 

                     Ghost Story begins with a man driving south. In his car, taken as a strangely-willing hostage, is a little girl no more than twelve who calls herself Angie Maule. The young man, who remains nameless through most of this, seems weirdly detached and ultimately a little frightened by his passenger and what he's done. But this isn't exactly the focus of the novel, though it feeds into it. No, the focus of the novel is four old men, a group that calls themselves the Chowder Society and gets together on cold dark nights to drink fine liquor and most importantly to tell each other ghost stories. The four are obviously haunted by something, something having to do with the death of the fifth member of the group, a man by the name of Edward Wanderley. But they're content to continue their haunted existence and tell each other their ghostly stories, until one day, one day something happens that they can't ignore. An event that unsettles and unnerves them more than anything that came before it.

And then things get weird.

                     As unexplainable events slowly overtake the town, the Chowder Society gets in touch with one of Wanderley's nephews, Don, a horror author who used his own occult experience to write a novel called The Nightwatcher. But when Don gets to town, it appears something evil was waiting for him, waiting to get everyone into one place, waiting to trap Don and the elderly members of the Chowder Society. Something that is slowly taking out its anger and vengeance at being trapped on the town itself. And stopping it may just take all of them with it. 

                        I suppose what makes the book work for me the most is the atmosphere. As I was reading it, I knew exactly what part of the year I should have read it during, and what kind of book it was. The idea of an unseasonably cold October seeps into the early pages, even in the parts of the book that take place in Florida, even before it gets into the cold October of the Chowder Society and their stories. It's an undeniably chilly book. There's a certain empty feeling that occurs in the time right between the end of autumn and the start of winter that Straub nails perfectly, a weirdly desolate feeling when there's a chill in the air and one can hear for miles though there is absolutely no one else around. This also helps the effect when the Chowder Society are telling their ghost stories, all of which have a bit of the American Gothic tradition to them. And indeed when the ghosts of Ghost Story start to creep in around the edges, the weirdly desolate edge helps sell the creepier aspects of the story. This reaches a head as the book starts to move towards its catharsis, at which point the desolation is quickly replaced with horror. When the situation that the book spends all the time building comes to a head, there's genuine pathos and some unsettling moments. Even after the climax, there's still the sense of things unfinished, things not quite done. The book still leaves you on its hook.

                     It's also the way Straub plays with the themes involved. Ghost Story is, at its heart, a book about guilt. The Chowder Society hold guilt for several incidents in their past. Don Wanderley has what happened to him and his brother, something that ties into the mystery surrounding his older benefactors. And what can be seen on one level as the story of a group of men thwarting a violent spirit poised to destroy their town and their livelihood, it takes a somewhat darker approach. No one in the town of Milburn* where the book takes place is exactly innocent, and a lot of them are directly responsible for their own fates. It's especially telling that when the reveal for who, exactly, is responsible for the misfortunes of Milburn and the Chowder Society finally comes, it can be interpreted in two ways. Without giving too much away, it takes the story of the young succubus who comes to town and slowly corrupts the town's influence, and it...plays with it. It shows it might not be one person's fault, or the other, but merely tragic events that then reoccur. It also throws in a little Native American mythology, the idea that those who confront the evil in their souls can transcend their own deeds, and those who cannot will be dragged down by them**. 

                     Though there aren't all good points. Straub spends time developing the town of Milburn, but this doesn't really seem to serve any purpose but to show that the malaise is affecting the town rather than just the central characters. When this of course sets up the inevitable climax that sees the town stranded in a blizzard and slowly being picked off by the monster(s) at the center of the story, it seems like that's the only reason we bothered to take a bigger look at the town in the first place. The climax, while set up well and able to make the idea that all debts come due enticing, takes away the personal connection to the men. The forces of evil seem to lash out wildly at the townspeople, and while some of them actually do have a connection to the inciting incident and some of the deaths are beautifully ironic in hindsight, it pulls from the focus at the center: A single incident of guilt and covering up something that shouldn't be covered up. It also takes away the personal, intimate feel of the terror from earlier and loses the guilt theme that is present throughout the work.

            But these? These are nitpicks. Ghost Story is an amazing book, well worth the price of admission. Find this book. Read this book. Then read it again. It's creepy, tense in places, unsettling, and captures the atmosphere of real ghost stories. This one's worth a buy.

And now, I leave you with one last quote: 

"America is not a young land. It is old and dirty. Evil. Before the settlers, before the Indians, the evil is there, waiting." - Naked Lunch

*Mr. Straub places Milburn in New York State. Whether it is there or not, I kept confusing this with  Millburn, NJ.

**Which is, weirdly enough, the plot of the climax of Twin Peaks. Well, hopefully not. Lynch is waffling on whether there'll be more. 

Peter Straub Month concludes with:

- Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
- Snuff by Terry Pratchett
- Spares by Michael Marshall Smith
- One of Us by Michael Marshall Smith


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