Friday, March 1, 2013

A Ghostly Glimpse: The Tale Entwining the Tails of Ghost Story

I’m unsure if the phrase ghost story has become synonymous with scary story, but I remember asking my mother to specifically tell me ghost stories when I was a lad living on the dusty, wind-blown fields of Kansas. The misnomer may not be fully inaccurate, though. These stories are designed to haunt listeners much as ghosts haunt homes and tenants. Thus, Straub’s book Ghost Story lives true to its name, not because it’s full of ghosts, as the title might suggest, but because it’s full of tales that illustrate the terrors that haunt the characters and that entwine to create an all-encompassing tale readers keep with them long after they finish the story.

Ghost Story is arguably a work of metafiction; it’s a tale of a group of men who tell tales. Each of these tales was “the worst thing that ever happened to [each of them]” (Straub 38). The story turned as the worst thing the men had ever done came back to haunt them, and in turn, the worst things ever to happen to them also showed up in town. Basically, the scary stories the men tell began to literally haunt them.

This technique was fascinating as it demonstrated how a writer can diverge from his story, expand the world, and yet tie the tales back together. For example, the story of a school boy and his wicked older brother was told, and their likenesses appeared in town and haunted the area. At times I felt that the ties were too loose, too coincidental, but overall, Straub’s technique was a fine example that stories do not need linear plots. I’d also argue that this technique can be taxing on the reader and risks confusion, but it can add a terrific amount of depth to a story.

To tell this story, Straub needed to add that terrific amount of depth. This necessity was due to the need to show the existence of the evil, not just tell of its existence. Sometimes I meet people who seem to confuse the hyper-utilized rule “show, don’t tell.” Either they apply the rule to everything, though there are times the rule needs to be broken, or they quibble over line edits as a method of employing this rule. The best use of this rule is when characterization is demonstrated, not just summarized. For instance, if a woman is a great lawyer, the story needs to show her in action, not just say she’s won many cases. Worse yet, the story should not simply say, “she’s a great lawyer.” Ghost Story, similarly, shows the terrors that haunt the men and the town. It would not be enough for to simply say a monster, Gregory, was scary enough to kill. Gregory became much more terrifying as his brother, Fenny, dropped dead of fright after having a confrontation (Straub 78-79).

Likewise, as other stories built around people dying, the tension in the story built for the final confrontation with the monster. The creature itself was a shape-shifter, which meant it could take the forms of every fear presented. The only way to create a fear of a creature that can be anything is to define that creature through scary stories, or ghost stories. The book was filled with dread, yet it still concluded with the notion that facing one’s fear will belittle that fear, and in doing so, the protagonist caused the monster to turn into a wasp, which he then rips it apart (Straub 566). This ending might seem anticlimactic, but it works. The group of story tellers had already faced the monster, and defeated it, once before--they faced their fears, and this final battle was just one more step in defeating the beast. Of course, it should be pointed out that the final battle was very psychological. Without knowing for sure if the child was the monster in disguise, the protagonist was forced to kill the kidnapped girl. Making the decision to murder the child despite the uncertainty of the outcome was the challenge the book left off with. Of course, there was a happy ending.

I also wanted to mention I watched this film adaptation when I was about six years old. My sister and I happened to catch it on television at my grandparents house. It was around that time I also saw Pet Sematary. I doubt these were the first horror movies I ever saw, but they were two of the most memorable ones. I actually forgot the name of this film until I picked up the book a few years ago and realized this was that old movie. It may not be my favorite Peter Straub book--shout out to Shadowland--but Ghost Story certainly holds a special place in my heart.


  1. It's interesting to read a post with an opposing viewpoint. I didn't like this book. I think it was long winded, full of too much detail, and difficult to read without thinking it was a chore. It had its moments of greatness and there were aspects that I really liked, but I think the book could have been cut down by almost a third and still present the wonderful moments. However, I liked your points about fear and haunting. Once I got over the fact that the book wasn't about ghosts, it made reading it easier. But as you said, some of the points were too much of a coincidence. Great post.

  2. I agree with you here, to a certain extent. The ideas and concepts that Straub plays with in GS are pretty intriguing, and make a person ponder. Maybe I'm misreading this, but when you say that when Straub added "that terrific amount of depth", are you saying that you think that Straub executed the "Show, Don't Tell," rule well? In a balanced approach? Sorry. Just wanted to clarify your thought a bit. Because for me, I felt that he laid the Showing on almost too thick in the book.

  3. Great post, Ryan. I'm happy you wrote about dense of the book because I think density and "long windedness" get confused. I don't remember if you were in the Novel vs. Short Story chat, but Ghost Story is a great example of of how chapters work best if you treat them like short stories. Every time we got a new title, it was a new new beginning that does resolve in the end. That resolution moves into the next chapter and while all these stories are told, a greater story is being told that connects these characters and events into a whole.