Ghost Story, by Peter Straub

The title of Peter Straub’s 1979 novel Ghost Story is misleading because it is not about the spirits of those who have passed on but about the ghosts of youthful deeds haunting later life.  The protagonists are a group of elderly men – John Jaffrey, Sears James, Lewis Benedikt, Ricky Hawthorne and Edward Wanderley – living in the small town of Milburn, New York State, who have known each other since they were young. 

They form the Chowder Society, donning formal attire for their meetings during which they drink fine whisky and tell each other stories.  The standing rules are that one does not drink to excess and does not challenge the stories’ veracity.  As the narrative progresses, we discover what has bound them to each other, and how the past has suddenly intruded into the present.  While they tell each other tales, they avoid the key one, which is only revealed late in the novel.

Now they find they are being stalked, not in the service of justice but a more primal desire that destroys for pleasure.  Their numbers dwindling, they call reinforcements in the shape of Don Wanderley, Edward’s nephew, who had faced the danger himself.  As winter tightens its grip, the town closes in on itself and faces destruction.

Finally overcoming their dread and bad dreams, the group fights back.  The shapeshifting forces arrayed against them seem omnipotent, with abilities far beyond humans’, and a longevity conferring advantages of knowledge; yet the men discover these creatures have limitations, giving hope they might emerge victorious from the nightmare.

While beautifully plotted, the story unfolds slowly, very slowly, as Straub paints the portrait of the Chowder Society, the large secondary cast, the town and its surroundings, and of course the amoral entities menacing them all.  Milburn is shown as a pleasant small town built on a human scale, a cohesive community, which reinforces the horror of the coming disaster.

There are nods to other stories.  The group sitting round while one tells a story within the story evokes the frame in The Turn of the Screw, and there is a specific reference when one character holds a child, and realises the child is dead.  Epigraphs of a literary nature include ones by Edgar Allan Poe and Nathanial Hawthorne (plus Don has to lecture on the latter author), and of course Ricky Hawthorne is one of the Chowderites.  A giant spider trying to enter a room suggests The Haunting of Toby Jugg (actually the name Donald Wanderley is not too far from Dennis Wheatley).

The echoes of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1975), acknowledged by Straub, have been frequently noted.  King links them in Danse Macabre (1981), both novels ‘working in the tradition of such “classical” ghost story writers as Henry James, M R James, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.’   King is on less firm ground with his contention that ‘We have met the monster, and, as Peter Straub points out in Ghost Story, he is us.’  Straub’s monsters are external, preying on human vulnerabilities.  The humans are victims, not monsters; at least not until they are dead and transformed.

My overriding thought reading the novel was how well cast the four Chowder Society members were in the 1981 film version, perhaps indicating a certain disengagement.  It is unusual to have such elderly protagonists, and tracking them over a period of fifty years provides a reminder, if one should be needed, that every old codger was once young, and the young version might as well have been a different person.


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