Saturday, January 02, 2010

04:44 Ghost Story

Ghost Story
Peter Straub

There are two general rules I follow regarding reading. One, I rarely re-read books, even the ones I like. I don’t have enough time to read all the things I’m interested in, let alone re-read old stuff. This policy has saved me from being disappointed by old favorites. For example, I’ve been thinking of re-reading Catch-22, but part of me would prefer to remember it fondly rather than be disappointed by how it, or I, have changed.

My friends Ben and Cindy re-read; mystery novels mainly. Cindy has a good memory and can usually recall the solution, no matter how convoluted. On the other hand, Ben experiences a vague sense of déjà vu while re-reading, but the ending is always a surprise.

“Not enough time” lies at the root of my other rule: I don’t take part in book clubs. I can pick out my own reading material, thank you very much, and while I’m always interested in hearing what other people have to say about books, there’s something about the mandatory nature, the obligation, of book clubs I instinctively mistrust. They’re too much like homework.

However, a few months ago I broke both rules. The Onion’s AVClub (the satirical newspaper’s review section) began an online book club and Ghost Story by Peter Straub was one of their initial selections. The timing seemed fortuitous as I had been thinking of re-reading Ghost Story, which was one of my favorite horror novels of my teenage years, although “horror novels of my teenage years” is a bit redundant. I stopped reading horror,apart from the occasional short story, when I was in my early twenties. There was no conscious decision or reason at the time. I just read other things instead.

Each month, one of The Onion’s AVClub writers selects a novel. A few other writers read it and post essays about the book, and then readers of the website add their feedback on the novel, the essays or, this being the internet, anything at all. The book club started, as new projects often do, with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm. It probably helped that the first two books were Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, two utterly strange and fairly unique books. There’s not much in American letters that’s comparable to either novel. A tone of bewilderment pervaded the essays and comments as everyone tried to grapple with both the novels and their reactions. However, books chosen later drew much more mixed reactions, with naysayers slipping into bratty “this sucks” mode rather than arguing intelligently about why “this sucks.” (I am referring to those posting comments anonymously; the reviewers consistently wrote perceptive essays whether they liked the novel or not). Full disclosure: one of the later novels chosen was John Crowley’s Little, Big, a personal favorite, which made the obnoxiousness of some of the comments especially frustrating. I know, I know: anyone who cares what anonymous posters on the internet say is just asking to have their feelings hurt. But still…

So in October I re-read Ghost Story for a book club.

I should have stood by my two rules.

Ghost Story is about a vengeful spirit who returns to punish the men who had killed her many years before, and destroy the town where they live for good measure. Except she was already a ghost then, so they didn’t really kill her, but that, along with much else in the book, doesn’t make sense when examined closely.

The novel touches on several potentially interesting things: men’s fear of women, the purpose of storytelling in our lives, post-modern ideas that the characters are self-consciously aware that they are taking part in a story, the difference between horror in life and horror in entertainment. But Straub doesn’t have address any of these ideas.

Re-reading it, I was surprised at how stodgy it seemed. Why did I like this as a teenager? I think the answer lies in the fact that at that time, Ghost Story was considered the “classy, literary” horror novel, especially when compared to Stephen King. In the same way, as a teenager I preferred Michelob because I thought it was the classy beer. Its story of a small town slowly dying is deliberately patterned on King’s Salem’s Lot, but whereas King is not ashamed of his pulpy influences and has fun with them, Straub seems to be a bit of a snob and aims for respectability rather than scares. Much of Ghost Story reads less like a ghost story and more like a soap opera. It recalls those 1970s novels about middle-class college professors having affairs in the suburbs, the spawn of Updike and Cheever. It’s not the book’s language or ideas that made it seem literary, but the fact that Straub refers to Hawthorne and Henry James, Poe and Stephen Crane.

Worst of all, it’s not scary. Just as I want my comedy to be, you know, funny, I expect my horror to be scary. The lack of chills wasn’t due to my having read the book before, either. There was plenty my memory had wrong. It just seems hard to believe that once I read this book thinking that, supernatural elements aside, it was an accurate depiction of what adult life was like, whereas now I know better.


Iva said...

You know, I thoroughly enjoy reading the reviews that you do...they are well written, intelligent, easy to understand (by that I mean, your use of English is comprehensible to us ordinary people); the unfortunate thing is that I have not read the books that you usually write about. Hence, I am unable to agree with you or disagree with you.
However, I did read "Ghost Story" years ago and (even then) thought it was uninteresting. I know Steven King's books were considered kind of pulp fiction but a few of his works I really liked (notably "The Shining") but I don't care for Peter Stroud. So, I am happy to say I agree with you!

the hanged man said...

Thank you. Yes, I think Straub's problem is his attempt to make horror "classy." Not saying this can't be done, but I think he goes about it the wrong way.

King seems more interested in pursuing ideas that appeal to him; whether they are refined or vulgar doesn't matter. Consequently, his writing has an energy and a level of invention that Straub (at least in Ghost Story lacks.

Bob Fingerman said...

I never read the book, but my most lasting image from the movie is the process shot of a full-frontal naked Craig Wasson falling to his death. Now that's horror.

the hanged man said...

Just be happy it wasn't in 3-D.