Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

 Source of book: I own this.


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. Every year, for October, we read something “spooky.” This book certainly qualifies. I’m not really into horror books, but it has been fun to read some classics as part of our club, and discover new books as well. 


Ghost Story is apparently a classic of the genre, named by Stephen King as an influence on his own work. It’s a good story, I must say, and well written, although you have to stick with it for a while before it starts to make sense. 


The opening of the book is the most puzzling, as it essentially starts near the chronological end, with one of the protagonists taking this creepy young girl across state lines in what seems like a kidnapping with intent to murder her. It’s seriously disconcerting, and we don’t actually learn what is going on until near the end of the book. (And a few things remain unexplained, for that matter.) 


After that introduction, we start to meet the rest of the characters. The central characters are all part of the “Chowder Society,” a group of five old men who meet regularly to tell ghost stories and drink and, well, hang out. Two, Ricky and Sears, are lawyers in practice together, John is a doctor, and Lewis is retired and a fitness buff. We never really meet the fifth, a novelist, because his death of a heart attack the previous year haunts the others. His nephew, Don, is also a writer, and he is summoned by the others to help them figure out why they are having nightmares ever since the death. 


It turns out that everything is connected to a supernatural being who manifests as a femme fatale. I won’t go further than that with the plot, because for books like this, the unfolding of the mystery is the point. 


There were a number of interesting lines in the book that aren’t really key to the story, but struck me as interesting. The first is from Sears James, telling the story of his attempt to be a schoolteacher before he gave in and pursued the law. This would be his first contact with the supernatural beings, when they were posing as desperately impoverished children. The line is interesting, though. 


“I know I have a reputation of being a conservative, but I’ve never equated virtue with money, nor poverty with vice…” 


Ghost Story was published in 1979, which was, to say the least, a different time. It is hard to believe now, but once upon a time, the Right Wing in America wasn’t openly social darwinist, and indeed didn’t equate wealth and poverty with virtue and vice. That was changing, however, and Ronald Reagan would be a big part of that with his race-baiting rhetoric about “welfare queens.” So, Sears James is an old school conservative. 


There is also a perceptive comment about so-called “golden ages,” and what they mean. 


It is always true in personal, if not historical, terms that a golden age’s defining characteristic is its dailiness, its offered succession of the small satisfaction of daily living. If none in the Chowder Society but Ricky Hawthorne truly appreciated this, in time they would all know it.


It is interesting to look back on what now seems like my own golden ages. Parts of my childhood before puberty (and our foray into fundamentalism), my late 20s and early 30s, when my body was strong and fit and we were comfortable in our church and family and life. Before Trump, even. Straub is right on this point. It was the small satisfactions of daily living that characterized these ages. In retrospect, I can see that, and I miss being able to go days, weeks, months at a time without a constant horror at what has happened. When I could still believe good about people. And, lately, when we could actually go places and do things without a deadly disease stalking us.


There is another line which seems very applicable to our own times. Near the end of the book, after the supernatural being has essentially cause a horrific winter that shuts down the town for months, her departure finally allows the town to re-open. 


Some businesses never did open up again: a few men had gone bankrupt - you have to pay rent and property taxes on a shop, even if it is buried under a snowdrift.


That’s us in the time of Covid-19. Eventually, we will get through this, but there will, unfortunately, be casualties. 


There are two other lines that really reflect on the nature of humanity. Don finally understands at the end what separates the supernatural beings from regular humans. 


They could for a time evoke human love, but nothing in them could return it. What you finally saw was their hollowness. They could disguise it for a time, but never finally, and that was their greatest mistake; a mistake in being. 


This is interesting, not least because this could describe narcissists pretty well too. A bit later, Don is talking to Peter, the teen whose mother was among the victims. 


“I once knew a girl who spent all day in a library and said she had a friend who protected her from vileness. I don’t know how her life turned out, but I do know that nobody can protect anybody else from vileness. Or from pain. All you can do is not let it break you in half and keep on going until you get to the other side.”


This is a tough one to swallow as a parent. I also believe it is why so many parents like my own fell for con artists selling formulae they promise will protect the kids from heartbreak, pain, sin, and so on. But it never works. Rather, it leaves a wake of destruction and heartache behind.


One final thought, more specifically related to the plot, is this: why DO white people always split up? It never ends well, so you would think we would learn, right?




No comments:

Post a Comment