Literacy 2023: Book 1: Ghost Story

Peter Straub’s great big take on a Salem’s Lot-style small-town novel works best when it’s sticking to the stuff promised by its title

Book
Ghost Story by Peter Straub

Synopsis
Four elderly men, long-time friends from a small town in New York, have a tradition of meeting regularly to tell ghost stories. After the death of one of their club’s founding members, they begin to have shared nightmares, foreshadowing the arrival of an evil entity that wants to destroy the entire town.

Pros

  • Much of the book is masterfully written, with scenes that, like the best ghost stories, are filled with inescapable dread from just a sighting or a fleeting thought.
  • Adept at changing tone and voice as the story is told from the perspective of different characters and an omniscient narrator. The effect is subtle, but you can absolutely sense the different characterizations coming through.
  • Stella Hawthorne is a charming and interesting character.
  • Comes to a satisfying conclusion that’s far less bleak than you’d expect from the dismal prologue.
  • Particularly good at foreshadowing: the narration will matter-of-factly tell you about something tragic that will happen soon, letting the idea hang in your mind until you read how it actually happens.

Cons

  • Overlong. While individual passages are well-written, the book as a whole has too many of them. I respect the desire to have a story that impacts an entire town of characters, but Ghost Story stays on the surface of all of its side characters, never giving enough detail to make their appearances feel like more than wasting pages.
  • There’s a feeling of repetition as we hear what is essentially the same story happen to different characters. It’s especially frustrating because the characters seem oblivious to clues which have been mentioned over and over again.
  • The supernatural aspects of the story are either insufficiently described, or inconsistent; the villains have powers that would seem to make them omnipotent, but much like Roger Rabbit, can only do it when it would be spooky.
  • Dated. The book feels very much of the late 1970s, not just in the technology but in the attitudes. There’s a seeming fascination with adultery, and a tinge of causal misogyny that seems to linger behind everything. It’s difficult to just say “it’s a product of its times” because so much of the book seems to need to feel contemporary, contrasting the modern world with that of the old men in the Chowder Society.

Verdict
I’ve wanted to read Ghost Story since I was in high school, and I’m glad I finally finished it. It made for some excellently creepy reading at bedtime, and it made for some late-night marathon reading sessions where I wanted to find out what happened next. But ultimately, it felt like it was lacking something at its core, the core thematic idea and statement-of-purpose that was present in most of Stephen King’s novels around the same time. Ghost Story was strongest when it stayed true to its title, but ended up a bit of a disappointment for me when it turned into something else.

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