Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Dollar Bin Book Review:Ghost Story

By Eric Polk-
I tend to believe that if there is a #2 writer in the world of horror fiction, it is Peter Straub. This man loves to serve his horror heavy on the old-fashion elegant side. If Stephen King hits you with a sledgehammer, Peter Straub hits you with shards of glass, both of which are still painful. Nowhere was Straub's use of subtle scares more evident then in his classic 1979 novel, Ghost Story.

The novel opens with a man named Donald Wanderley traveling with a young girl whom he has apparently kidnapped. Eventually Donald and the girl arrive in Panama City,Florida at which point the novel jumps back in time to the events of the previous winter.

Living in the small New York town of Milburn are four elderly men who are members of a group called the Chowder Society. John Jaffrey, a doctor; Lewis Benedikt, a retired entrepreneur; Sears James, an attorney; and Ricky Hawthorne, an attorney and James' partner. For the past fifty years these best friends have gathered together and told each other stories and have been great companions. Once upon a time, however, their group consisted of five members. One year earlier Jaffrey had thrown a party at his house in honor of a visiting actress, and their fifth member, Edward Wanderly, had died in an upstairs bedroom during the festivities. When his body was found there was a look of absolute horror on his face, as if he had been frightened to death.

Ever since that night the friends have been plagued with horrible nightmares, and have taken to telling each other ghost stories. At one of their meetings, Sears tells them a The Turn of the Screw-like ghost story about when he was a young man. Before deciding to attend law school James had taken a teaching position in a rural community. He developed a fascination with one of his students, a young boy named Fenny Bate. Fenny and his sister were ostracized by the community, and upon making some inquiries he finds out why. The two children once had an older brother named Gregory, and it was generally believed that Gregory sexually molested his young brother. The parents of the siblings were dead, and Gregory was their guardian. One day while repairing a roof Gregory fell off the ladder and was killed, and someone thought they saw the two young Bate children running away from the scene. Sears tells his friends that in time he began to see a threatening young man hanging around the school, and he eventually comes to believe it to be the spirit of Gregory Bate. Sears attempted to save Fenny from the clutches of his dead brother, but to no avail. Fenny died, and Sears was legally obligated to finish out the school year and then he left the small community.

The next morning after telling his story Sears and Ricky are called out to the farm of one of their clients, who has found some mutilated livestock in his field. Later in the car Sears reveals to Ricky that the previous night's story was not fictitious, but had actually happened to him in his youth. Sears also admits that he is scared, as are all the members of the Chowder Society. They decide to write to Edward's nephew Donald Wanderly, as Donald had written an occult novel and they think that his research abilities might be employed to good use on their behalf. Before Donald can arrive, however, Jaffrey dies in an apparent suicide by jumping off of a bridge.
Donald arrives just as the funeral is coming to a close. The three remaining members of the Society tell him that they want him to investigate any possible avenues that he might deem appropriate. Several years previously Donald's twin brother David had died under mysterious circumstances, and it led him to write his horror novel. Donald tells them the story of what he thinks actually happened. Several years previously he had landed a teaching position at Berkeley on the strength of his first novel. While there he began seeing a beautiful grad student named Alma Mobley. At first he was inseparable from her, and there was talk of marriage. But over time he began to notice strange things about her. He described it as more of a sensation, but he felt that there was something unnatural about Alma. He stopped seeing her as much, his work suffered, and one day Alma simply vanished. Upon investigating he found out that a great many things that Alma had told him about her past were fabrications. A few months later David called him and told him that he and Alma were engaged, and that he wanted things to be right between Donald and his fiance. Donald tried to warn David, but to no avail. And soon thereafter David was dead.

Not long after this Lewis Benedikt dies in the forest, and Sears and Ricky decide that is time to tell Donald the most terrible story that the Chowder Society knows...and it is a true tale. 50 years previously a young woman named Eva Galli had moved to the town. She was in her early twenties and all five of the young men fell head over heels for her. One night in 1929—not long after Black Monday -- Eva came to see them, but she was not acting like herself. She made sexual advances and belittled them. There was a struggle, and Eva fell and hit her head. Believing her to be dead, they conspired to hide the body by putting it in a car and driving it into a deep pond. But at the last moment Eva's body disappeared from the inside of the car, and there was a lynx looking at them from the other bank.

Donald begins his research and quickly comes to the conclusion that what they are dealing with is a manitou, or some other kind of shape-shifting creature. He also believes that Alma Mobley is actually Eva Galli. Donald theorizes that since these creatures live much longer than humans Eva waited fifty years before returning for her revenge.

While the pacing does leave something to be desired, the prose, the horrors, the ghost stories more than make up for the lack of speed. There's a gothic, erotic undertone to this story that makes this stand out for me as Straub's best work. Pick up a copy, I don't think you'll be mad you did.


@ufcdave said...

I remember seeing this movie in my younger days. I believe it had an aged Fred Astaire in it & he did no dancing in the film. It has been too long for me to remember if it was any good or not.

Eric Polk said...

The movie version of Ghost Story did feature Fred Astaire, but like you, I don't remember how good the film was.

Faycin A Croud said...

I like Peter Straub. Ghost Story was an excellent book, and the movie was really quite effective. The acting was superb and the special effects were ghoulish. Do re-visit it, you won't be sorry!