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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  • Regina Richards

    Well, December isn’t far away so perhaps I’ll set this one on the bedside and enjoy it then. Thanks for the great review.

  • I’ve been meaning to read this. Thanks for the reminder. And, I agree, if you don’t read anything but the fast-paced, death-in-30-seconds type of horror fiction, you’re cheating yourself. Straub, James, and many others unearth very interesting, otherworldly worlds for readers if we will just take the time.

    • It really is a shame! I hate to sound like that old-fashioned person who bemoans today’s fast-paced world, but sometimes I really do long for simpler days and longer attention spans. =/

  • Cynthia Robertson

    Hi Annie,
    I have read it, but years ago. I recall liking it, and reading more of his stuff, but couldn’t tell you the plot. Maybe that just means it’s time to read it again? Your description of the best way to read it certainly makes me want to!
    It feel a little sad that modern readers are too impatient for slow, absorbing reads. Some of my favorite books have been that sort. Overly busy lives cause us to miss out on so much. sigh

    • That doesn’t really surprise me, because the plot is so complicated and involved. It’s really hard to sum up, which I think also makes it harder to remember later. I think I’ll probably carry away just the things that really struck me, you know? And I’m with you on the loss. Busy lives and long books don’t always go together. =(

  • Peggy

    My thoughts are very similar to Cynthia’s, especially, “Your description of the best way to read it certainly makes me want to!” 🙂 I read it probably the year it came out, but all I can remember is that I thought it was the scariest book I ever read. I think I may even have the paperback somewhere in my mess of books & hope to find it & re-read it.

    • I’m curious to hear what you think of it once you re-read! I bet it’ll be fun. 🙂

  • Carie Juettner

    I read Ghost Story two years ago and gave it 4 stars on Goodreads. I remember wanting to give it 5– the whole way through I was loving it– but I read the end when I was sick with a fever and it confused me. (I probably should have read it again when I was well.) Like Cynthia, the feel of the book sticks with me but almost none of the plot. I’m glad you mentioned the audio version. I might re-read it it that way. I know it’s not the best way to experience his writing, but it might be an okay was to RE-experience it. 🙂 I’ve never read anything else by him.

    • The book does get kind of confusing. The characters get really confused themselves by the tricky Bad Thing at the end, so I can see how fever reading would make that a mess. I think audio might be fine the second time around. The main thing for me was keeping the characters straight. The narration by Buck Schirner was excellent, if you decide to go that route!

  • Traci Kenworth

    I saw the movie years ago. I always intended to go back and read the book. Maybe I will now. Thanks!!

    • Oh, I didn’t know there was a movie. Do you remember if it was worth seeing?

      • NickRepublic

        It is but has a different explanation at the ending. Still scary, it’s one of the reasons I didn’t read the book for twenty five years after it had been out. ps. in its book form, one of the scariest tales I’ve ever read. One of Straub’s strengths: setting a mundane scene then picking it apart until the horror becomes apparent.

        • Oh cool. Well I’ll have to add that to my list then. Thanks!

  • I read it, but so long ago I don’t remember it. Your review has encouraged me to find it and read it again — so thanks! (I think “grand slam” is tennis not baseball. lol)

    • Lol! Grand slam is definitely baseball. =)~ Maybe it is also tennis? I’ve never even watched tennis, to be honest! If you re-read, I’d love to hear what you think!

  • ” Not quite book reviews” is the greatest category name.

  • Diann

    Wonderful review. I’m putting it on my reading list.

    • Oh, yay! Thanks. Let me know what you think!

      • Diann

        I think I will wait for the time-of-year ambience (maybe late October?), but I mentioned this review to my boyfriend (a fellow horror lover) who said he loved this book too. He also reminded me about the two books Stephen King and Straub co-wrote, which he really enjoyed. On the offchance you haven’t read them…

        • I’ve never read them! I actually own one of them, but I haven’t gotten to it. I still have several Kings and Straubs (solo) to read as well. There’s never enough time!

  • This is my next to read! I haven’t read Mr. Straub yet, but he has, of course, been on my to-read list for some time. So glad I stumbled across your review. I’m looking forward to cracking that spine this weekend even more now.

    • Oh, yay! I’d love to hear what you think of it when you’re done!

  • Andrew Hope

    Maybe it was just a typo, but Ghost Story (I read it in the 80s, and just finished listening to the audiobook) was published in 1979, not 1989. I’m convinced that this wouldn’t have turned out as good as it did if Salem’s Lot hadn’t been published a few years before it. Regardless, it’s a truly great book.

    • Woops, that *is* a typo, and kind of an important one. I think you have a wonderful point about it coming after ‘Salem’s Lot. Thanks for planting that seed in my head. I’ll go back and fix the date. 🙂