“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” “I won’t tell you that, but I’ll tell you about the worst thing that ever happened to me…the most dreadful thing…” These are some of the opening lines from Peter Straub’s 1979 novel Ghost Story. Set in the fictional small town of Milburn, New York, Ghost Story is about a community besieged by dark forces bent on destroying the town. It possesses a great story, has loads of suspense, and is one of the finest horror novels I’ve read.
Reduced to its basic plot, Ghost Story is a tale of revenge. Five young friends (who call themselves the Chowder Society) accidentally murder a woman and cover up their crime. They begin telling ghost stories as a way of dealing with their guilt, only to be haunted by the woman’s ghost fifty years later. Desperate for help, they turn to a young horror author to help exorcise their demons.
But Ghost Story is about much more than this basic plot, although it is a difficult novel to summarize. That’s because Ghost Story is wrapped in ambiguity. Why the creatures (it’s ambiguous if they are, in fact, ghosts) have decided on Milburn is unclear. Presumably, it’s tied to the habit the main characters have of getting together and telling ghost stories in an attempt to bury their dark past. But it’s not made clear if the town’s danger is independently real or a product of the Chowder Society’s imagination. Likewise, the horror author can’t figure out if events in the town are influencing his new book or vice versa. Plus the event from their past tying them together may not have happened at all the way they remember. Even character identities are in flux; at one point a ghost tells a main character “I am you.”
Ghost Story contains numerous references to previous horror authors. It has characters named after Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James (one of the Chowder Society tells a ghost story that is basically James’s The Turn of the Screw) and the plot is rather similar to Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. But the reader doesn’t have to be well versed in horror literature to understand, or be scared by, Ghost Story. It’s the kind of novel that slowly develops and draws the reader in with deliberate pacing and careful character building. Ghost Story is an overlooked horror classic, and anyone interested in digging a little deeper in the genre should check it out for Halloween.