Ghost Story, the book that established Peter Straub as a major author of supernatural fiction, is both an effective horror novel and a metafictive commentary on the genre. Preparing to write Ghost Story, Straub spent six months reading and rereading in the field. The references to Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne are obvious; the novel also refers to many other English and American writers, such as Ambrose Bierce and Arthur Machen. Stephen King’s novel Salems Lot (1975) helped Straub organize a multicharacter story and present the story of a town as well as of individuals. Another influence was Thomas Tessier’s The Nightwalker (1979).
The novel combines a realistic presentation of life in Milburn with a supernatural menace that is interesting, as a new twist on a classic theme, and thematically satisfying. The interior lives of the main characters are rich and believable; subplots, such as the affairs of Ricky’s wife Stella and the growing-up conflicts of Peter Barnes, lend depth and texture; and exotic characters, such as the paralyzed spinster Nettie Dedham and UFO-believer and poet Elmer Scales, lend color. These elements also contribute to the depiction of a town under siege by the weather, by social tensions, and by a supernatural agency that works with and through the flaws already present in the town and its citizens. The shape-shifters, though not human, are reflections of real people, as Straub’s references to Narcissus indicate.
As in his other novels, such as If You Could See Me Now (1977), Straub develops the idea of the eternal female as femme fatale, the key to mysteries both alluring and terrifying. With some exceptions, his human female characters do not succeed as well. Throughout the novel, there is a constellation of four Manitou fighters, with Don joining after one death and Peter after the next, yet a slot is left open after Sears’s death, unfilled by the logical candidate, Stella. This flaw was addressed by Straub in a later novel, Floating Dragon (1983).
Ghost Story also explores the interplay of subjective and objective states, as characters are deceived by the shape-shifters and find themselves in malleable “realities.” The constants that sustain the Chowder Society are their own senses of self and the deep friendships they share. Ultimately, these characteristics and dedication to the town of Milburn allow them to win.