For Halloween, my latest installment in this series of favorite novels is Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, published in 1979. Like other horror stories, it’s couched in a claustrophobic environment of dread, suspense and terror. What makes it unique is that the source of evil is not a ghost, but something much more talented, crafty and vindictive.
The novel begins with a man driving cross-country with a young girl he has abducted. To find out why, we must delve into the lives of four aristocratic old men in a small New York town who meet regularly over brandy and cigars. Two of the men, Sears James and Ricky Hawthorne, are semi-retired law partners. John Jaffrey is a doctor secretly addicted to drugs. Lewis Benedikt is a philandering widower whose wife died in an unexplained incident while they were in Europe.
Bound by a dark secret from their youthful past, the four friends take turns telling ghost stories. The ritual takes a horrifying turn when they start having different versions of the same dream. Soon, a mysterious force begins to coalesce within the town, manifesting itself in a series of increasingly sinister events.
Terrified, the old men summon to their town Don Wanderley, nephew of a deceased friend, to investigate. Don’s arrival only serves to strengthen the evil as the town becomes increasingly snowbound in the depths of a dark New England winter.
That atmosphere is what always draws me back to Ghost Story. By the time it reaches the climax, I can feel the frostbite on Ricky’s fingertips, and his fatigue as he, Sears and Don trudge through knee-deep snowbanks toward a rendezvous with the past. Adding to the suspense is a cast of characters who include an obsessive sheep rancher, an alcoholic sheriff, two mischievous boys, two promiscuous wives, and a pair of spinster sisters, one of whom suffers from speech paralysis.
Peter Straub is the author of many other books, novellas and short stories. He has collaborated with Stephen King on two of them. Most, but not all, deal with the supernatural. I have found some of his work too difficult to follow. But I will always keep Ghost Story on my shelf of treasures, waiting for the right spooky evening when I can relish it again.