Thoughts on Ghost Story by Peter Straub

Peter Straub has been on my to-read list for a long time. He’s a big name in horror, but I just hadn’t gotten around to him yet. (Educating yourself on all the “classics” is a never-ending task, especially if you read in many genres.) Recently I finally sat down to read what is perhaps his most famous novel, Ghost Story. I’ve heard it called literary horror (one of my absolute favorite niche genres), I’ve heard it called “the scariest book I’ve ever read” by more than a dozen people (right up my alley), and I already had it on my bookshelf because my dad owned it (always a good sign).

I finished about ten minutes ago. The fact that I immediately sat down to write about it tells you something, doesn’t it? This might not have been my favorite book of all time, but boy oh boy did it take me for a ride. Let’s address those three promises right off the bat, shall we? Yes, I whole-heartedly agree that it qualifies as literary horror, a hard thing to find. Yes, I thought it was occasionally scary and I can definitely see how some people would find it entirely scary. And yes, my dad had impeccable taste. 🙂

I should note that this book is nearly impossible to summarize in a compelling way that doesn’t give things away. Here’s the Goodreads summary: “For four aging men in the terror-stricken town of Milburn, New York, an act inadvertently carried out in their youth has come back to haunt them. Now they are about to learn what happens to those who believe they can bury the past — and get away with murder.”

First and foremost, Straub can write. His prose was always more than competent and frequently wonderful. He has a knack for unique but believable dialogue that I found really easy to slip into. And I put about four sticky tabs at various passages that knocked my socks off. His insights were at times so keen as to be startling.

I admire the scope of Straub’s intent. I didn’t always think he stuck his landings, but I agree with the tricks he was going for. On one hand, he seemed to be almost fiercely defending horror as intellectual, which I whole-heartedly support. On the other hand, his actual messages felt muddled to me, and I was left feeling vaguely disappointed at what felt like intentional ambiguity and buried messaging. Also impressive in scope was the story itself; in Ghost Story Straub introduces first four and then five, six, arguably seven main characters who we follow along with. In a Stephen King esque structure, we end up meeting a small town and most of those in it through recurring settings, minor characters, and various points in history.

Using classic ghost story literary devices and themes combined with popular sensationalism, Straub weaves a novel that feels both contemporary and antiquated – an homage to traditional authors such as M.R. James as well as modern masters like Stephen King. Indeed, sprinkled throughout the novel are sly winks and tips of the hat to many a genre figurehead, which is always fun for horror lovers like myself. Perhaps because of Straub’s respect for his literary heritage, or maybe due to his intentionally self-referential themes – I will say that the book didn’t strike me as particularly original. To be fair, this book was published in 1979, and I’ve spent most of my life reading things that came after it, so who’s to say what’s what? All I can say is that although I was utterly enthralled, I never felt entirely… surprised.

One thing that may deter many readers is the pacing. Straub doesn’t grab readers by the throat; he sits back in his comfy chair, stares into the fireplace, and slowly begins to tell his tale. Personally, there’s nothing I enjoy more than an author who writes with the easy confidence that you’ll be hooked. If you trust Straub, he’ll take you places. All of the seemingly loose threads get tied up. All of the minor characters become relevant. All of the backstory comes into play. But so few authors are allowed to utilize that slow-build method in today’s marketplace that I fear modern readers might find it dull. This book is long, challenging, and imperfect. That said, if you’ll sit down with Straub and settle in, I think you’ll be glad you gave him the chance. I was.

Which brings me to the final thing I want to discuss: reading methods. I’ve spoken before about what it takes to enjoy good horror, and I can’t think of a book where that’s more relevant than Ghost Story. I’ll admit that I didn’t give this novel its best shot to really get under my skin. I started it on audio, and I don’t think this is the best book for audio. The multitude of characters and interwoven nature of the storylines made it very difficult for me to follow along with out loud. After a while I gave up on the audio, picked up my paperback, and started again from the beginning. I’m so glad I did! Going at my own pace and seeing the words in print made a huge difference.

Another confession: even though I knew reading was better, I did, after that, continue to switch back and forth between listening and reading. I did it because I so badly wanted to finish the book and I didn’t have time to just sit and read, but I think this was a mistake. In the end, I short-changed myself what could have been a truly chilling experience. When you consider that I got several moments of real fear even when listening while half-distracted at work, you can imagine how scary reading quietly with full attention might have been. So if I could do it all again, here’s what I would do:

I would wait until December, when the days get shorter and the air gets colder and I have a real hankering for a Christmas-time ghost story. I’d pick up my paperback copy and I’d take my time. I’d read only at night after my day was wrapped up. I’d turn down some lights and cuddle up under a blanket, preferably beside the fire. I might even get out a notebook or empty bookmark to jot down character names or random thoughts, and I’d definitely have my sticky tabs at the ready for great passages. And no matter how much I got sucked in, I wouldn’t let myself rush the finishing. Read for hours straight? Sure. But not read too fast. Not skim or half-listen or brush over things that puzzle me. I’d sink all the way into it and let it take the whole month if I have to. Because you know what? I think the book is that good. Perfect, no. But quiet and smart and chilling, and to me, if I could do it again (and maybe I will someday), those things are worth some time.

To use a baseball metaphor (who am I? what’s happening?), I’d say that Ghost Story wasn’t quite the grand slam I was hoping for. For me, Straub didn’t knock it out the park. What he did do, though, was get solid contact with the ball, keep his head in the game, and make his way around the bases with a slow and steady quality that, while perhaps not crowd-thrilling, still scored the team a run. In other words, I don’t think this one will make it onto my favorites list, but I do have fantastic respect for the author, will be reading more of his books, and likely will think about this complex tale for a while yet to come.

Have you read Ghost Story? Other books by Peter Straub? Without giving away spoilers, I’d love to hear your impressions!

[If you enjoyed this post, feel free to check out my other “Not Quite Book Reviews.”]

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