” Wee see things, but we don’t believe them; we feel things—people watching us, sinister things following us—but we dismiss them as fantasies. We dream horrors, but try to forget them. And in the meantime, three people have died. ” (Part Two, III/9/317)
Despite the very simple title, Ghost Story, has an ambitious scope that Straub intends it to be a summation and continuance of its literary forbears. The book is straight out of the Gothic classic literary style. Two characters have names that pay tribute to masters of the genre. Evoked from the complex layers of this story are monstrous deeds, decades of guilt, revenge, and death.
Set in fictional Milburn, a small town in upstate New York soon to be under the siege of a terrifying Christmas blizzard, Ghost Story revolves around members of the Chowder Society, which meets over whiskey and cigars to keep one another company as age creeps up on them: Frederick “Ricky” Hawthorne, Sears James, Lawrence Benedikt, John Jaffrey, and, until his death a year prior, Edward Wanderley. These men, in their 70s, are bound by a guilty past some fifty years gone that involves a dead woman and some feral children. Not only are they not appeased over time, history seems to have repeated itself with greater intensity.
The bedroom was cold, and almost bare. Two coats, Edward’s and the girl’s, were lain across an exposed mattress. But Ricky only saw Edward Wanderley. Edward was on the floor, both hands clutched to his chest and his knees drawn up. His face was terrible. (Part One, II/5/150)
The men begin to have spooky, prophetic dreams after Edward’s utterly unexpected, inexplicable death at a party, thrown by John Jaffrey, for a beautiful young actress named Ann-Veronica Moore. More to their horror, that mysterious actress vaguely reminds them of the wretched Eva Galli from fifty years ago. The men find in the town around them, and in Edward’s distorted, fear-stricken face in death, hints that their unholy past is catching up with them. In distress, they write to Edward’s nephew Donald Wanderley, who is, of all things, a horror writer whose past also reveals a relationship with a strange woman. Soon the Chowder Society and Donald realize their stories were not coincident but inter-related.
What transpires between these strange incidents leaves me transfixed, as the mysteries begin to reveal themselves at a slow but gripping pace. The avenger and her minions have come back; and the men are now launched into a time when madness offers a truer picture of events than sanity.
The book itself calls for reader’s patience, as the crisscrossing between characters early on can be confusing. Once the characters come into focus and a footing gained for the story, Ghost Story is a rich and chilling read. Past and present masterfully collide in this novel that addresses more about the sins of men and their scruple than about incomprehensible evil. The atmosphere is drenched in darkness and despair, prevalent in every page. It’s truly a sublime, powerful, and horrifying read.
Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster. Pocket Paperback. 567 pp. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]