Peter Straub himself says that “[Ghost Story] started as a result of my having just read all the American supernatural fiction I could find”. It is noticeable; the first part is largely a reworking of The Turn of The Screw. The theme of a story within a story is everpresent, as the work deals with a group of old men who tell themselves ghost stories on regular meetings. Shades of Lovecraft, Poe and Hawthorne brood in the corners of the rooms they sit in.
The men find themselves terrorized by terrible, realistic nightmares. Terrible things start happening in the small, sleepy town of Millburn.
They remember the crime they had committed years before…and wonder if the time of retribution has finally arrived.
Nothing is what it seems to be. These beings can convince you that you are losing your mind. That’s happened to each of us—we’ve seen and felt things we argued ourselves out of later. It can’t be true, we tell ourselves; such things do not happen. But they do happen, and we did see them. You did see them. You did later.”
The theme of a town besieged by malevolent forces or beings has been done previously, most notably by Peter Straub’s fellow writer and friend Stephen King in Salem’s Lot. Straub acknowledges the influcence: “I wanted to work on a large canvas. ‘Salem’s Lot showed me how to do this without getting lost among a lot of minor characters. Besides the large canvas, I also wanted a certain largeness of effect.”
However, while Salem’s Lot was swift, fast-paced and competent in dealing with the theme, Ghost Story doesn’t quite deliver. The town of Millburn is described as a small town, but it completely lacks any awareness and interaction. The characters seem to be detached from reality – everyone walks everywhere, and there’s little mention of pop culture – music, television and such. The novel is supposed to take time in the 1970s, but for all we are shown it might just as well be the 1870s.
“You’re no Martian,” Elmer said. He did not even feel the cold anymore. “Why, of course not. I’m part of you, Elmer. You can see that, can’t you?” Elmer nodded dumbly. The beautiful thing put a hand on Elmer’s shoulder. “I’m here to talk to you about your family. You’d like to come with us, wouldn’t you, Elmer?”
I don’t want to spoil anything, but the nature of the Evil and it’s actions don’t follow any pattern of logic and reason. Evil is at times omniscient and capable of incredible power, only to have its abilities reduced to humanlike status, and then go back to the supernatural and all-powerful again.
Overall, I’m sad to say that Ghost Story doesn’t live up to the hype that surrrounds it. While it is a complex, multilayered work, a homage to the creators of the genre, It’s not very compelling and in fact is pretty easy to put down and leave unfinished. The story itself is a mess, requiring a tremendous amount of perseverance and patience to finish. During the first 200-300 mind-numbing pages the story meanders slowly through several different viewpoints with only the rare interesting moment to sustain the reader.