Peter (Francis) Straub Gene Lyons - Essay

Gene Lyons

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In writing "Ghost Story"] Peter Straub quite clearly wishes to have it both ways: to make a hit at the checkout counter and in the English department as well. For besides nightmares, apparitions, werewolves, blood-letting viragos and hosts of the undead, Mr. Straub has summoned up the literary shades of Hawthorne, Poe and Henry James in an attempt to dignify and provide a respectable context for his long and complicated book.

Up to a point, Mr. Straub succeeds in both ways. Academic fashion these days seems to favor narrative gamesmanship and irony, and "Ghost Story" delivers plenty of both. Parts of the novel, indeed, read like a series of illustrations to scholar Wayne Booth's "The Rhetoric of Fiction," utilizing multiple narrators and points of view, stories within stories within stories, and more flashbacks than the Odyssey. (p. 14)

Most of the novel … is melodramatic and convincing by turns. But Mr. Straub makes what I think are two critical errors. So convoluted a narrative must keep moving along; Mr. Straub's pace is at times glacial, as the reader anticipates and draws obvious conclusions chapters ahead of the characters. Then too, unlike the masters of the genre … Mr. Straub becomes entirely too literal and particular about the nature of the horror his characters are facing, so that the last third of the novel ceases being mysterious and turns into a kind of supernatural thriller, the outcome of which, to this reader at least, was somewhat predictable. Even so, "Ghost Story" is a quite sophisticated literary entertainment…. (pp. 14, 23)

Gene Lyons, "Horror Shocker," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 8, 1979, pp. 14, 23.