The morning after I finished reading Ghost Story, I found myself strolling along the misty riverbank of my own small town, whispering this Edward Gorey limerick:
Each night father fills me with dread/When he sits on the foot of my bed;/I’d not mind that he speaks/In gibbers and squeaks,/But for seventeen years he’s been dead.
This novel sent a ghostly chill up my spine that lingered for days. It starts with a challenge:
“What is the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
The reader asks him or herself that question, perhaps unconsciously for the answer is buried deep. It varies from person to person, from casual lies and gossip that have brought others harm to horrendous acts, such as murder. Its abeyance is the cause for a lot of denial (and drinking) for many of us, and the novel addresses that. But when we’re asleep and open to the dark truths we hope to keep buried, our sins/our ghosts seep in like foul-smelling green mist, shape-shifting but always there, pursuing us, cornering us, and ultimately scaring us to death.
We all have something to feel guilty about. The book seizes on that and digs in.
The Chowder Society of Milburn, New York, a town as quaint as any Courier and Ives print, is comprised of four crusty old men who share a secret about the worst thing they’ve ever done—the murder of a beautiful, seductive woman, Eva Galli. That she is an ancient, evil spirit in human form to begin with adds another layer to an already complicated story. Their wealth and positions in the town form a bulwark against their mutual sin, as does their regular meetings (in evening clothes sipping brandy before a fire) to share ghost stories as a way to assuage their guilt, or to turn the screw.
My Jamesian reference is intentional as this is a literary novel, and it will turn off some readers for that reason. But for those of us who love Poe, Hawthorne, and Lovecraft, it will be a treat to catch these allusions and revel in Straub’s elegant descriptive passages.
The story resides mostly under a blanket of snow, adding to the dreamy sense of isolation. The sleepy town offers corners of comfort in the paneled living rooms, lively cocktail parties, and warm marriage beds where good New England woman (even the town adulteress is treated compassionately) love their men. Food and brandy offer repasts from the endless blizzard outside the door, the windows shaking in their casements, and the reader gratefully indulges in them along with the characters—if there was ever a book that made me want to drink brandy by a fire on a cold night it’s this one. But the threat of evil, told through stories of farm animals drained of blood and arms ripped off in threshing machines, and eyes that shine forth from empty rooms, is never far way.
There are moments that sent cold chills up my spine:
… suppose you went out for a walk and saw yourself running toward you, your hair flying, your face distorted with fear…
And few modern horror novelists have such a flair for figurative language.
The day was a long bolt of gray cloth; endless.
The novel is as creepy as it is ambitious, weaving ghost stories within ghost stories that sneak up with subtle scares, causing me to fling the book into the air and gasp when my dog suddenly started barking at something outside the window. Gregory Bates? If the novel has any flaw, it’s that there are too many stories packed into one book.
Ghost Story is a modern horror classic–required reading for all horror fans. It will seep into your dreams as it did mine. Take it on your winter vacation, and if you get snowed in and a storm knocks out the lights, oh well. Read it under the blankets by flashlight. I guarantee you’ll be reading until dawn, looking over your shoulder and shivering with frightened delight—isn’t that what we crazy horror fans want after all?
When I was nearly done the novel, I just had to watch the film again. Yes, it’s flawed and it no where near captures the scope and intricacies of the book. That would take a mini-series–wouldn’t that be cool! I remember the film came out when I was a freshmen in college and it scared me then. Now, not so much, but I still enjoyed it. One reason for watching the film is Alice Krige’s performance as Eva Galli/Alma Mobley. She is enchanting as she is weirdly frightening.
Three-quarters of the way through the novel—somewhere between Alma Mobley and Eva Galli—I was reminded of a dream I had about my father.
For a few years after he died, he would appear in my dreams, often in airports, bus stations, or tourist-laden towns and cities—always transient places, as if his spirit was held there before crossing over. In this particular dream, I was in Key West, a place I’ve only visited in dreams and through friends’ Facebook posts. I saw my father–middle-aged with silver hair and a vital physique as I remember him in his prime—working a souvenir shack near the beach. He wore a purple t-shirt with some tie-dyed, psychedelic print on it, reminiscent of his early 1970’s “hippie period.” The counter of the square hut, bamboo poles supporting a thatched roof, separated us, as did the purple wrap-around mirrored sunglasses he wore. There are always barriers in these dreams, physical separations–emotional ones too.
“Dad, what are you doing here?” I asked.
“Sorry, but I had to get away,” he said, embarrassed I had found him.
“But I really need to talk to you, “ I implored.
“Sure, okay,” shifting inside his hut, uncomfortable that I had discovered him.
I tried to express to him that I didn’t care where he had been all this time. I just needed to talk to him. He agreed to meet me at a party that night.
The scene shifted, as dreams do, to a party in a tree-house type of structure. It was a grunge vibe as I recall (he died in 1991 so that would make sense). I remember waiting impatiently in a crowded party where I knew no one—young adults in grungy clothes, holding cups of beer, and swaying to meaningful rock ballads. All I cared about was seeing my Dad again. When he finally showed, he had ditched the hippie duds and was wearing the outfit he wore nearly every day of his life: Lee jeans, work boots, and a plaid flannel (in keeping with the grunge milieu) shirt.
“I’ve been looking for you for such a long time, Dad,“ I said. “Please, I really need to talk to you.”
Again he appeared shifty, as if not wanting me to pin him down. Then he looked at me with a pity perhaps only the dead can feel for the living and said, “Ah, honey. I’m not really here.”
Then he moved away from me and disappeared behind a door.
A panic seized me. I went to the door—rustic open planks—and pulled on it. It was locked. I banged on it, and shouted his name. The grunge kids continued to mill about–oblivious to our family drama. They were just part of the scenery, projections on the walls. Or maybe we were the projections.
I stopped banging when I saw a green light and smoke appearing under the door jam and between the rough planks. Then it opened by itself and I peered in. The room was empty. My father was gone except for his clothes: the jeans and the plaid flannel shirt hanging, lifeless but still warm to my touch, on a hook on the back of the door.