Sunday, September 2, 2007
A Hell House Revisited
The time: Winter, 1980. While preparing for a long bus ride home to Minneapolis from Winona,Minnesota, I buy a paperback at a small bookstore: a horror novel, a genre I loved as a boy, but now consider myself too highbrow and hairy-chested to read much anymore. I’d dug Stephen King’s The Shining, plus his two other earlier novels Salem’s Lot and Carrie, but—sniff sniff—no, my earnest sensitive young man’s ego would not allow me to even touch the notion that this childish fiction deserved the dearly sought label of “literature,” a category that only, in the last hundred years, had been defined as books read only by a relative few.
What snares me about this particular volume is its five pages of praising blurbs—not only from Stephen King, but also such high-brows as Christopher Lehmann-Haupt at, yes, The New York Times! One review even claims that “ . . . it tells us something about ourselves.”
Oh yeah! We’ll see about that, we will!
That novel is Ghost Story. Its author is Peter Straub. The opening lines sink their cold fangs into my nerves, right away:
“What was the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
“I won’t tell you that. But I’ll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me. The most dreadful thing.”
(Never mind the chill you feel; consider the moral implications of that exchange; the evasion of responsibility it implies).
After that, for maybe the first hundred pages, I am treated to an undeniably extremely intelligent, literary, well-written, if a little plodding, novel. For a time, I worry that it might be a “shaggy ghost” stories where the threat turns out to be only a hologram image concocted by some evil, but very reality-based, trickster, or caused by LSD in the water supply, (these almost always make me groan; even then, I believed literary and cinematic monsters should be “real,” even though I don't believe in their real-world existence.)
Then somewhere after page 100, a switch flicks on in a far corner cave of my mind. Two nights later, in a sweat of ecstatic horror and suspense, I close the book and think something like, Golly . . . that's best book I've read since Gravity’s Rainbow.
Now, at last close to completing a horror novel of my own (with several worthy, but unproduced,screenplays between), I decided to open the door to this haunted monument for the fourth time. Of my two precious signed first editions, I chose the British Jonathan Cape one with its terrific hallucinatory dust jacket. (But, unfortunately, the text is poorly proofread in spots.)
Ghost Story’s plot, like most in the genre, is simple. Here, four old white men, rural representatives of a generation of courtly conservatives now seen only in the likes of Senator John Warner, are struggling with their fears of aging, death and the changes ringing through 1970s American society. After the death of one of their own, they seek solace and therapy by telling each other ghost stories during their monthly get-togethers.
Bad idea, because, instead of comforting them, this tale-telling conjures up a militantly angry feminine demon seeking revenge for an insult suffered fifty years ago. After another member of their “Chowder Society” mysteriously dies, they dig themselves a deeper grave by inviting one of the dead men’s nephews in to help them investigate what is happening. The nephew, a writer himself,named, significantly, Don Wanderley, tries to grasp the weird events swirling around the upstate New York town where the novel is mostly set through his own writing, but they find this only empowers the demon even more, as she and her minions cut a bizarre path of destruction through their snug little world.
Like all good literature, Ghost Story is about more than its plot and story, more than scaring its readers: It’s fear with psychological, social and literary context and themes throughout its densely gothic and wintry prose: aging, loneliness, death, romantic obsession, misogyny, the long implacablle shadow of the past, the changes happening in society at large and their impact on insular, rural worlds. Peter Straub's book is deeply grounded in classic American gothic fiction of the past: Poe, Hawthorne and Henry James (two of the characters are named after the last two authors.)
Horror fiction is a conservative genre, in both the good and bad sense of the term (which maybe explains the angry scorn it faces from utopian, politically progressive readers) and this novel worries about the good things that may have been lost: for example, a cultured sense of human dignity and restraint, which has its roots in Anglo-European bourgeois society. Considering the brute cacophony of so much twenty-first century American culture, Ghost Story may have a point. (A simple trip to the movies these days requires earmuffs and Valium. Yeah, right: It marks me as an old white fogy. Well, fuck ‘em if there aren’t enough explosions in The Seventh Seal.)
Three decades later, I find Straub’s novel as intense and eerie than ever. (It’s a great book for a cold, snow-swept night.)As with all long books, some parts seem rushed while others rustily grind and clank. The novel’s gory climax—set in a movie theater showing Night of the Living Dead—seemed clever and daring when I first read it, feels a little ham-fisted now, though thankfully, the book never sinks into sniggering post-modernism. I was happy to read it once again.
Ghost Story opened my mind to the literary value and potential of genre fiction; it taught me that art and entertainment are never really in opposition. While most of the field does remain the junk our parents and professors wagged their fingers about, the best of it—and it’s a long list that weaves its way from Poe to John LeCarré—provides more than the lazy wish fulfillment of the routine popular novel. In genre fiction, unlike the inward turning—sometimes frozen--characters of other forms of literary fiction, people make big choices and take big actions . . . and they often lead to very human dilemmas. The worlds of genre fiction, whether cold war Berlin, a haunted snowbound New York town, or the Wild West, may not be “real-life” but, in the hands of wizards, they may be no less real, complex,and, yeah, even profound.