The movie version of Ghost Story (1981) made a pleasantly chilling impact on my psyche when I was a pre-teen. I’m not sure of the exact year, but I discovered the movie via HBO on a heat-soaked summer evening during a sleepover with my best friend. We were looking for a scary movie, but not the sort of 1980s slasher-horror bloodbath that featured teenagers getting hacked to pieces by a homicidal maniac. Although the Ghost Story movie originally received poor critical reviews when it premiered around Christmas 1981, I was delighted. The phenomenal cast, the scenes of wintery menace, the revelatory ending, and most especially the Gatsby-esque ghost girl all captured my imagination for weeks. The next day, I pedaled my ten-speed to the public library in order to check out a copy of the original 1979 novel.
I read that novel. I know I read it. And yet, I don’t really remember the reading experience at all. I don’t recall being confused, disappointed, or shocked by all the differences. Perhaps I was still bewitched by Jack Cardiff’s stunning, atmospheric cinematography and skimmed through or skipped entirely the long passages of agonizing prose that bogs down the first half of the book. Maybe.
Skip forward thirty-five+ years.
I eagerly anticipated revisiting this beloved modern horror classic … until I cracked open my battered, second-hand paperback and started reading. The jarring dissonance between my memory of the story and the opening pages of the novel was bewildering. For a few disorienting moments, I wondered if I was even reading the correct book. No joke. I set the paperback aside and spent a few minutes on Google reassuring myself that this novel was in fact the original work upon which Lawrence D. Cohen based his screenplay.
While I was internet sleuthing, I learned Roger Ebert was one of the few critics who wrote a positive review of the film adaptation back in January 1982. His brief reference to the source novel jumped off the screen at me:
I plugged away at [the novel] for what must have been hundreds of pages before his unspeakable prose finally got to me. At least, he knows how to make a good story, if not how to tell it…. “
Exactly. That perfectly sums up my adult self’s revised opinion of this novel.
Let’s start with this shocker. Straub’s Ghost Story is not a ghost story. It’s the story of four respectable elderly gentlemen, calling themselves The Chowder Society, who gather together and tell each other ghost stories instead of talking about the mysterious death of the fifth member of their group. Their storytelling ritual is both a coping mechanism and avoidance strategy while a supernatural predator hunts their neighbors and plagues their dreams. The premise is fantastic, but rather disconcerting if you’re expecting a traditional ghost story.
Like Green Town (IL) in Something Wicked This Way Comes, Straub’s Milburn (NY) sets the perfect backdrop for this small-town siege by otherworldly enemies. Milburn is where these men grew up, where they lived out most of their adult years, and where they will eventually receive a decent burial in the cemetery alongside their ancestors. Dread and foreboding etched in late autumn’s frost builds into wave after wave of terror as relentless winter weather locks Milburn in its snowy grip and an otherworldly adversary circles closer and closer. Most of the scenes set outside of this delicious setting are superfluous.
The evil entity toying with these men was originally known to their group as Eva Galli in the 1920s. But the novel twists and turns Eva into a demon with a thousand faces. She’s an alluring young actress, she’s a shy Berkley grad student, she’s the competent new receptionist at the law office, she’s even a disturbing little girl the other kids avoid. Or is she? Could these men be looking for evil in all the wrong faces?
Sounds intriguing, right? So why didn’t I love the book?
Ghost Story is an ambitious, multi-layered story. It’s told from multiple points of view with shifts between first-person and third-person. The timeline is slippery. While I don’t dismiss the book based on these chaotic elements, the art and craft of storytelling get lost in all this unnecessary complexity. Any decent developmental editor could turn this meandering mess into a straightforward, effective narrative that would probably weigh in at under 400 pages (compared to my old paperback copy’s nearly 600 pages.)
Right at the beginning, the reader is subjected to what some would call a perilous prologue. I am not a hater when it comes to all prologues and could readily pull a few titles off my personal “favorite things” bookshelf that feature captivating prologues. That said, I can also find many more examples of ill-conceived and/or poorly executed prologues that should have been cut in the editing process. Both the prologue and epilogue in Ghost Story should have been cut. Neither is necessary to the story. Worse, they detract from the reader’s experience. The narrative should begin and end in Milburn.
Speaking of beginnings and endings, the origin of The Chowder Society is rooted in one past bad act in the 1920s. It’s the one thing they never speak about directly; the one thing none of them can forget. I much preferred the way the movie treated this deep, dark secret and ultimately brought the truth to the surface. In the novel, it seemed these men never took full responsibility for the sins of their past and don’t feel contrition for their actions. They aren’t proud of themselves, but they aren’t exactly remorseful either. The only thing they seem to regret is not finishing the job properly fifty years ago. Meanwhile, Eva-With-a-Thousand-Faces is hell-bent on punishing the entire town for a betrayal committed by five men who’ve enjoyed five intervening decades of comfortable middle-class life before the final reckoning. She’s not a victim for whom we can muster any sympathy. While the men of The Chowder Society aren’t perfect, they are depicted as Good Guys fighting Evil Eva for the soul of their community. It’s a missed opportunity in the book, but the screenplay serves up a healthy dose of moral ambiguity along with the horror.
Part Three of the novel (The Coon Hunt) depicts a decent good vs. evil story; especially the confrontation in the Rialto movie theater where Night of the Living Dead is being projected over and over to an empty theater. If the reader can get to page 340 and is not overly resentful of the long slog it took to get there, the payoff might be worth it. But then the ending pages after the big showdown dribble on and on.
Overall, the second reading of this novel was a disappointment. I would not wholeheartedly recommend it to another reader, at least not without a few caveats. This is one of those rare exceptions in life. Where Ghost Story is concerned, the movie is actually better than the book.