Well, I do like to try and read a ghost story for Christmas every year and this one was quite fitting for the holiday for a variety of reasons. Peter Straub's Ghost Story is one of the creepier ghost stories that I've encountered in a long time and it seems both a little strange and yet very fitting to be writing about it on Christmas Eve. It was an unnerving read, very much a slow burn sort of story that took me a while to get through but well worth the effort in the end.
I can see where an impatient reader might get frustrated with it, but I don't mind when an author takes his time rolling out a story when it turns out to be a good one. Part of the reason it took me some time to read it was the length, as it isn't a short book, but also the feeling of dread Straub evokes in the telling. It's a good ghost story, a little frightening for the feeling he creates and the tension of figuring out just how all the various threads of the story will eventually hang together and intertwine--and by story's end they do indeed all come together.
The story focuses four men who gather together to tell ghost stories. Long standing friends who call themselves the Chowder Society, they dress formally when they meet and are something of a fixture in the small town of Milburn. The stories they tell, however, are real stories from their past and they began when one of them asked 'what's the worst thing you've ever done'. And one of the men answers, 'I won't tell you that, but I'll tell you the worst thing that happened to me'. And so begins their telling of ghost stories.
Backtrack to the beginning of the book, however. Seemingly unrelated to the Chowder Society and Milburn the story opens with what appears to be the abduction of a little girl. A man grabs her and drives her down to Florida. He doesn't seem to want to harm her, takes good care of her, but takes her away from her home nonetheless. Why? For what purpose? And will he eventually harm her? It's not until the closing pages of the story is this revealed.
The abduction of the child bookends a story that moves about in time and from place to place. Each thread is a piece of the puzzle that won't become clear for some time. The story is slightly disorienting at first. It's hard to discern just why these disparate stories are being told. The names of the people are familiar but seem unconnected. After a slowish start the story begins picking up momentum. Despite not knowing where things are going it's easy to just get caught up in the storytelling.
Most of the story takes place in Milburn ca. 1970, however, where strange things are happening. Animals are dying, and so are people, from strange accidents. Is there a wild animal attacking them? Are the deaths related or just strange coincidences? Fall turns to winter and and the season brings with it brutal storms one after the other. It's as if someone were making it happen, taking it out on Milburn and making the city suffer for some unknown grievance. The four men of the Chowder Society perhaps know why, and they can trace the impetus back some fifty years to their own youth when they were just beginning their lives as new lawyers and doctors when all the world was fresh and at their feet.
I started this book in October with the idea of a good ghost story in mind for Halloween. And I've finished in the run up to Christmas when we had our own winter storm that dumped snow and ice on the city. It was a little eerie to read a book with just such a setting when the same thing (though thankfully not quite so brutal) was happening just outside my own window. I can see why Peter Straub's Ghost Story made the list of Top Ten Ghost Stories Ever (I've now read them all), as it is an elegantly told tale and complex in its structure and unravelling, much like the gentlemen who make up the Chowder Society.
A well written book, but alas, I've had my fill of ghost stories for a while and am ready to turn my attentions to different sorts of stories for a while.