THE GHOST STORY, wrote L. P. Hartley, is "the most exacting form of literary art." Himself a master of the necessary skills, Hartley knew that the supernatural is best evoked through precision and subtlety. Such anti-gothic restraint was typical of the late Victorian and early 20th-century ghost stories produced by Kipling, James, Edith Wharton, Algernon Blackwood, Walter de la Mare, M.R. James and others-today considered the classics of the genre. Now Peter Straub, a seasoned writer of supernatural fiction, has paid an ambitious homage to this tradition in Ghost Story.
According to Straub, he wrote Ghost Story out of a desire to "take the classic elements as far as they could go" in a contemporary setting.
It is frequently worthy of its heritage, for when he wants to Straub can write superb horror. Although the plot-involving the invasion of a small town by a demonic entity called "the shapeshifter"-is not exactly auspicious, many of the individual apparition scenes are frightening enough to jolt the most jaded ghost-story addict. There is a dream sequence set in an abandoned house, for example, that is simply hair-raising. The dread it conjures is cumulative and the climax it reaches has, like a revelation in a real dream, elements of both inevitability and surprise.
Ghost Story is filled with bows to earlier tales. The main characters themselves are expert ghost-story tellers who meet ritualistically to spook each other; this conceit, as well as the ambiguity of stories within stories, was a favorite device of Sheridan Le Fanu. And resonances of Arthur Machen can be found in the novel's string of ominous, alluring female characters who look alike and have similar names. As for Henry James, Straub seems to admire him with little restraint. Witness the following passages:
The Turn of the Screw : For there again, against the glass. . . was the hideous author of our woe-the white face of damnation. . . at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.
Ghost Story : At that moment the face of his tormentor appeared at the window. That white terrible face. . . Only a few seconds later did I realize what I had caught: his heart and stopped, and I was holding a dispossessed body.
Although Straub's "affction" for the proven devices of his betters is estimable, many of these allusions seem rather pedantic and pointless. The more obvious ones-such as having two of the main characters named James and Hawthorne-smack of the self-conscious cuteness that has given science fiction and horror "fandom" such a deservedly bad name.
However, the fundamental problem with Ghost Story is its wordiness. Straub either so distrusts (or else is so enamored of the effect of) his own images that he continually explains and repeats them. Often he eschews images altogether and substitutes repetitious descriptive labels. For instance:
She is discreet, quiet, on the surface of things a supremely self-contained, self-possessed young woman. She is remarkably unobtrusive. Yet she is sensual in an inexplicably upsettling way. She seems cold , sensually cold: it is a self-refering, self-pleasing sensuality.
The same problem afflicts the larger structure of the novel. Despite the council of earlier writers (M.R. James, even Poe) n the wisdom of stylistic economy, Straub rarely knows when to stop. Although the first third of Ghost Story is ghoulish fun, the remainder becomes cluttered with too many subplots, too many mutilated corpses, too many ghosts, and too many words. After a while, one apparition looks pretty much like another, especially since the author commits the fata 18th-century Gothic error of having his ghosts talk. And not only do they talk-thereby undermining their own mystery and menace-but they give away the novel's gimmick so early in the game that they have little to do for the last couple of hundred pages but butcher people and animals in increasingly violent ways.
Peter Straub tells us that his ambition was "to write a literary ghost story in the Henry James manner," but surely James, of all writers, would be appalled by the monotonous brutality, the fuzzy hyperbole, the silly italics, and the B-movie dialogue that disfigure so much of the novel's second half. These are the very cliches which the writers Straub admires attempted to exorcise from th ghostly tale.
If one suspends the high expectations set up by Straub's statement of his intentions, it is possible to savor the many unnerving moments in Ghost Story . According to H.P. Lovecraft, a supernatural horror novel which has genuinely terrifying passages-even if the whole doesn't work-should automatically be counted a success. Lovecraft knew all too well that the ghostly novel was a notoriously difficult form and that most writers in the genre shrewdly limited themselves to short stories and novelettes. Even Dracula, perhaps the greatest scary novel of all, falls apart near the end. With its praiseworthy intentions and partial success, Ghost Story at least falls apart in good company. CAPTION: Illustrations 1, 2,& 3, no captions