“I usually don’t read Horror, but …”
For the scary month of October, home of Hallowe’en, the Beamers like to pick a book that can shock and frighten. Or at least try to. This month, we went back for a classic of the 1970s American Horror Renaissance, Ghost Story by Peter Straub. Coming out just after Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, it tells of another isolated town, Milburn NY, that is suddenly fallen prey to a ghost or ghoul out of its past. For the Beamers, the trip to the past of the 1970s was as enjoyable as the trip to the past of the members of the Chowder Society who rose to fight for their homes.
All Roads Lead to Milburn?
Set in Milburn, NY, a quiet town located off the beaten path, Ghost Story starts with a prologue wending south to Panama City, Florida. The hallucinatory tone of the prologue and the clearly creepy vibe of a man taking a young girl not his child or ward on a mysterious, secretive road trip had any number of Beamers nervous. Except stalwart Kathy, who found the male character innately harmless and the female one inherently weird, enough to assure her that the typical predator/victim scenario did not apply. Other Beamers were not so sure, unwilling to accept that Don’s confusion was a sign of innocence and not of a person on the verge of mental or moral breakdown. Scenes involving bone-handled knives also did not lend credence to his harmlessness, either, most of us felt.
But it did set an immediate tone of strangeness that hooked a number of us, like Alan, who ordinarily would not choose Horror to read. The very literary tone of the following chapters, the up-close examination of small-town life and the details of marriages and divorces and infidelities, made the novel seem very mainstream to many of us, but with the twist of the prologue hanging over it.
When the Going Gets Weird, the Weird Get Reading
But not for too long – in fact, page 99 for Liz, who seized upon the sheep mutilations as a signal that True Weirdness did exist and was going to occur. Still, the book reads a bit slow in the early chapters as we get to know the founders (surviving) of the circle of friends deemed the Chowder Society. This careful introduction helped some of us handle the increasing flood of characters who appear as the story gradually draws in the rest of Milburn village. Not all of us were mollified, though. Liz would have preferred that opening 100 pages edited down to 50, and Donna would have pared down the list of characters. I thought that the continuing addition of characters mimicked the process of moving in and becoming a resident, getting to know the neighbors in disorderly clumps as life and circumstance brought them around.
But that mingling of past and present, folks current and folks from history, made the storyline difficult to follow for some, like Chuck, who found the chronology hard to parse, especially with its occasional sudden jumps to the Chowder Society members telling about their pasts, or the legendary Jaffrey party at which the first Chowder member died, or a departure to Berkeley, California for a meeting with a shapeshifter on campus.
Another Fine Episode of “Leave It to Shapeshifter”
Still, the close observation of Milburn brought out a number of tensions like class and family connections that served to ground the characters and their histories in a soil that felt firm and well-worked. The blizzard that isolates Milburn at the climax of the book, where locals begin to fight over the last remaining cans of pumpkin puree, is a real-enough phenomenon in small towns off the coasts, where roads can be closed (literally, gated off) for weeks or months. Straub’s supernatural killers are nearly matched by the more natural stresses of living through a deep winter freeze and struggles over the snow and ice.
That sense of place reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s similar attachment to his rural settings, and the similarity of an evil carnival sideshow haunting Milburn brought up Something Wicked This Way Comes. In both books, the mere mention of seemingly innocent music being heard by characters signals the approach of the uncanny into their mundane lives, and never for the better.
Ghoulies or Ghosties or Long-legged Beasties and Things that Go Bump in the Night
The supernatural element of Ghost Story also left us with more questions than answers, which Liz thought was a good situation, tantalizing and not resolving some of the mystery, though Nick preferred the more explanatory approach of Octavia Butler’s vampire novel, Fledgling. One issue that divided us was the nature of the vengeance being enacted on the Chowder Society members.
The trigger scene is presented as one incarnation of the shapeshifter (Manitou, vampire/werewolf) is teasing and provoking the young Chowder lads, which leads to her being tackled and bashed against fireplace masonry. Her seeming death galvanizes the Chowders to submerge her corpse in a nearby lake, though several of them argue that she moved while they were sinking her in a car. Why, if she did not perish, being a near-invulnerable creature, did she come back to Milburn?
Kathy felt that she had achieved her goal of provocation and therefore should be satisfied. Chuck went further and found her quest of revenge to be petty in that it involved destroying all of Milburn and not simply the guilty Chowders. For others, “A. M.”s vendetta (she went by many names, almost always bearing the initials ‘A. M.’) was a simple response to her feeling of superiority over mere humans who would dare to cause her pain or interfere with her pleasures. Don, the character who met her in Berkeley, explained at one point that her kind operate on different scales, taking 50 years to enact her vengeance, traveling to California (and then to NYC to seduce and kill Don’s brother), all to ensure that no one would escape.
A Much of a Muchness
The fact that no one would escape did lead to one point that bothered a number of us, the increasingly heavy body count toward the end of the book, a continuing pile-up of characters who, though well-drawn, did not always involve us in their lives as deeply as the Chowder Society and some of their allies. The increasing fear in the book seems to come more from the fear and suffering of a few, select characters and not from the ordeals of the general populace. But where the book does concentrate on those select characters, it wrings out a good deal of terror.
And even the few glimmers of hope that Straub allows. Kathy was very impressed at the way that simple acts of resistance, like Sears James throwing an admittedly weak punch but hurting one of the formidable minions and thus feeling bold enough to go down fighting. Or the youngest defender reacting to another’s dismissal of a call to arms, “You’re not Knute Rockne and this is not the Big Game”, by laying out plainly why it was the Big Game, or at least the biggest moment of all their lives and getting agreeing smiles from the old Chowders. Or even the final scheme to lure the Milburn crew into seductive dreams, leaving them open for the slaughter, being disrupted by Ricky Hawthorne’s explosive sneezing, rousing them from the illusions and repelling A.M. in mucus-coated disgust. If the terrors are personal, so are the small moments of courage that see the Chowders through.
Come for the Chowder, Stay for the Society
Overall, the Beamers were quite pleased with the chills of wintery Milburn, natural and not-so-natural. Fran, among the several Beamers who is not a fan of Horror, found the book raising enough goosebumps while still being approachable (unlike the overwhelming dread that Lovecraft’s works evoked for her). The consensus was we have a book that could be recommended equally well to Horror fans and non-Horror fans who want to see what the field was like when it produced the great break-out books of the 1970s like Carrie and The Exorcist.
, like those novels also the subject of a Major Motion Picture, continues to deal some scares while also bringing us into the lives of its characters and their charming/cursed town.