Ghost Story is not, it turns out, about “ghosts” at all. Its originality of concept is one of the reasons why Peter Straub’s horror novel was not only the best of its kind in 1979, but must also be ranked as one of a handful of modern dark fantasies that have transcended the limits of the genre to establish themselves as significant works of art.
Perhaps the uniqueness of Straub’s novel can be most clearly seen by a brief comparison with another excellent contemporary dark fantasy, Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1975). The basic plots of these two works are quite similar: a young, introspective, troubled writer comes to a small, provincial Eastern town where he encounters a mysterious and unnatural menace. Viewed with suspicion and hostility by the local authorities, he nevertheless manages to recruit a small group of converts, most notably a bright teenaged boy, to do battle with the evil before it destroys them and overwhelms the town. After a harrowing and protracted conflict, the menace is finally vanquished, but not before much of the town has been ravaged and most of the hero’s allies killed. However, in Salem’s Lot the menace is vampirism; in Ghost Story it is a new (or at least obscure) species of evil capable of destroying its adversaries in new and different ways. The qualities and tools needed to fight the vampires in Salem’s Lot are well known; the creatures in Ghost Story demand new tactics and weapons. Therefore, once we know what we are dealing with in Salem’s Lot, the novel takes a thoroughly predictable shape, but even after the evil in Ghost Story has been unmasked, defeating it remains difficult and problematic. Moreover, Stephen King narrates Salem’s Lot in a thoroughly straightforward manner, while Peter Straub approaches his material indirectly and experimentally, keeping us off balance and constantly surprised, as much by his manipulations of narrative technique as by the originality of his concepts. Thus, for all of the skillful plotting, excellent characterization, and fine writing in Salem’s Lot, it never becomes more than a first-rate vampire story. Ghost Story, on the other hand, breaks new ground in the horror genre.
Ghost Story opens with a short “Prologue” that frames the narrative. Donald Wanderley, the protagonist, is driving south with a female child he has apparently kidnapped. Wanderley is obviously distraught, harried, and frightened; he carries a knife which he constantly fingers as he debates using it on his captive. The child, however, is calm, self-possessed, and strangely ironical in her responses to her captor. Even as Wanderley drives toward the Pacific, his mind wanders. Images from memory blur into hallucinatory scenes. Names, events, and scattered details from the story are tossed out as tantalizing hints. For a few moments he thinks he is in New York City. Later, walking alone in a strange Southern town, he suddenly comes upon his brother’s tombstone. Back at the motel he feverishly quizzes the girl: “What are you?” he demands. “I am you,” she answers him as the Prologue ends. The same question and answer occurs every time a doomed character has his/her final confrontation with “it,” and in this exchange lies much of both the novel’s power and its meaning.
This short, brilliant Prologue prepares the reader for what is to come, both in substance and in technique. It provokes obvious questions: why is he kidnapping the child? Who is she? What will he do with her? What could bring a man to consider murdering a ten-year-old? Also what awful sequence of events has led them to this strange confrontation? All such questions must wait, of course, until the end of the book, but this opening lingers in the mind as we move through this long and complex dark fantasy.
The technical adroitness of that opening sequence—the sudden jumps in time and place, the instant breakdown of objective reality into apparent hallucination, the pervasive sense of nightmare—sets the reader up for things to come. While, as with Salem’s Lot, even the best modern horror tales tend to be conventional and straightforward in presentation, with at most an occasional flashback, flashforward, or dream sequence to vary the chronological presentation, Ghost Story is given to us in fragments. The primary story, which takes place in the late 1970’s, is continually broken up by other bits and pieces of narrative: stories within stories, time shifts, scenes, images events—real and imagined—from the past, glimpses of the future, seemingly irrelevant incidents and details, bizarre yet realistic hallucinations, and terrifying nightmares. Not only does Straub create that required sense of unknown supernatural menace but he also blurs the distinctions between reality and illusion so effectively that the horror seems to be as much from within as without.
Despite this fragmentary approach, however, Ghost Story is never arbitrary or chaotic; its underlying structure is, in fact, quite stable. One of the real pleasures of the book lies in seeing how these apparently unrelated bits and pieces gradually come together to form a coherent, powerful whole. Straub takes two basic plot lines, the first concerning Don Wanderley and the second centering on the “Chowder Society,” counterpoints them for a while, and then merges them. Thus,...
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