Call me old fashioned, but I love me a good spooky story on a cold autumn night. I waited to read Ghost Story for around Halloween, and because I’m a little gun shy about Peter Straub. For those who’d be following my blog before it got converted into Cannonball Central, I had picked up two Straub books at the dollar store. Now, I loved the two he wrote with Stephen King, particularly since they jived nicely within the confines of the Dark Tower Universe. And they were very different stories, but still both well done. So when I saw them sitting at the dollar store, used paperbacks just waiting to be snatched, I thought, these should be good. Mr. X and Hellfire Club. And both were just … they were just dreadful. But a friend who had seen me reading them told me, you must, must MUST read Ghost Story, it’s the only one Straub got right.
And he did. It’s not horrifying Stephen King alien/demons ripping your face off scary. It’s a really quiet, sinister, disturbing old style ghost story. It’s great about getting under your skin, and it was the right shot of the jibblies to get my creative juices flowing for the NaNoWriMo. It’s the difference between the old school Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the newer one. The new one is alright, but it relies more on jumping out and loud noises to scare you. The original version isn’t scary so much as unnerving. It gets into your blood and bones, and it leaves scars on the inside. So too does this one.
The opening is brilliantly jarring. Out of the middle of nowhere, a man is driving a young girl — who he kidnapped — down to Florida. You don’t know why, you don’t know what his intentions are, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. It reaches a point where the girl keeps telling the man a different name each time he asks her who she is. Then, he tries to murder her — not that he tries to slash and chase kill her, but that he actually stands over her while she sleeps clutching a hunting knife but he can’t bring himself to plunge the knife into her still tiny body murder her.
And then, bam! We’re in a totally different story with different characters entirely. It becomes the story of four old men who live in a picturesque little New York state village, covered in snow, where people drive to work and stop and say hello, and the town drunk’s the snowplower and so forth. Here’s where Straub might have taken notes from King. He takes a Norman Rockwell postcard and slowly starts to set drops of acid rolling on it, one at a time, until the fatty disgusting layers are revealed, and the darkness and infection sets in. It’s handled wonderfully, and it takes its time, standing face to face in the shadows with you so it doesn’t even bother shouting “Boo!” to knock your socks off you.
It all starts with a group of five old friends, who have been dubbed The Chowder Society, who sit around telling tales and living like Victorian robber barons. Then the stories take a turn when one man asks the others, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” And their stories become the answers.
And this is a novel of ghost stories. It leaps around in time and location, feeding us town history, and the history of the characters, each with their own personal skeletons in the closet. And this is where the story excels. Each one of the backstories could have been a short horror story in and of itself, but instead, it gets woven into the fabric of the story, something that can never be unravelled.
I finished it in the wee hours of the night, and I will admit, I had a bit of time getting back to sleep. Not that I was frightened of what was in the closet waiting for me, but that there would be something in the closet at all.
Cannonball Read / Brian Prisco
Books | November 12, 2008 | Comments ()