Ghost Story (YGtCTO Words #13)

Book written by Peter Straub

Like many of my generation, that first horror novel was written by Stephen King. I spent winter vacation one middle school year devouring The Shining. As intended, I was terrified and so enthralled that I finished the book anyway. I recall my parents discussing whether or not they should intervene in my reading choice. They doubtless had concerns about mature themes, which I mostly glossed over, reveling instead in the ghosts and the living topiary. In the end, they probably regretted not stopping me as it turned out that The Shining was the stuff that nightmares were made of.

Be that as it may, I mostly conquered the bad dreams, but kept on reading Stephen King. Salem’s Lot, The Stand, Christine, and Pet Sematary all followed whenever school allowed. Looking back on them, they constituted something of an explanation of adults for me. At an age and in an era that seemed determined to paint the world as a great divide between youth and maturity, these books found heroes and villains across all ages, many races, and the entire economic spectrum. To someone unfamiliar with the history of Gothic literature (really not too hip to plain literature either), they opened up whole worlds of storytelling possibilities.

Between a sister-in-law who willingly shared her reading habit and the local library, I had ready access to the legions of writers who followed King into the suddenly burgeoning field of horror authorship. Many were talented, but none held my interest at the time. At some point, Ghost Story landed on my nightstand and that changed.

The setting in a small New England town was familiar from King’s oeuvre. The language, however, was different. The rhythm and pace felt special. The villain was a seductress, somehow more adult and more primeval than anything I had read before. Despite the vampires and zombies and poltergeist and apocalypses of other books, the sweep of years in Ghost Story felt like a grand scale fight against something that could not be defeated.

The conceit of the story around the multiple narrators and their ghost story telling group gave layers that resonated even with an inexperienced reader like myself. More than that, the behavior of the men echoed that strange tendency of repeat readers to return to the horror genre even when it terrified the bejeezus out of them.

While I had been reading scary things for quite a while, I still struggled to make my peace with frightening movies. When it came time to see the movie based on Straub’s book, I could not resist the enticement, but I distinctly remember my trepidation with every scene change. The strange and usually comforting sight of Fred Astaire and John Houseman on the screen did nothing to calm my tremors. I loved every minute of it, glimpsing a future willingness to watch darn near anything.

At a time when vampires, zombies, werewolves, ghosts, and what have you seem passé, the thrill seems almost gone. We’ve had monsters killing children for so long that the very idea of literary horror seems absurd. King continues to sell books, but he has been an anomaly. Harry Potter certainly had horrific elements, but they were hardly the point. Maybe these tales were always destined for the moving image and that same subset of people who seek out collections by Gahan Wilson and Charles Addams.

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 262 more to go.

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