Memories, like corpses, rise from the past: Straub’s “Ghost Story”

I first read this book in the mid-1980s. The Ordo Templi Orientis had sued Straub over using their name (later, in the book, they are termed the “XXX.”) Aleister Crowley held a fascination over me–the same selfish, vainglorious fascination that draws some to Ayn Rand, I suspect–and the connection between the novel and my fixation on the occult proved motivation enough. I was 15 that year–the next, I read Zanoni. When I discovered AE Waite, my sentences knew no periods. But I digress….

When reading Ghost Story it might be tempting to think that the book rambles on a bit, but that’s part of the appeal. It’s not really a book about the supernatural, but a book about the normal life invaded by its own demons. The elderly–even ancient–members of The Chowder Society who meet to swap ghost stories do so not because they’re a pack of morbid old fools, but because they’re engaged in a ritual act of forgetfulness, a reassignment or realignment of symbolic deeds to occlude what they believe to be a murder–the murder of the entity probably best called by the initials A.M.

The being A.M. isn’t wholly real, nor wholly imaginary. It’s an admixture, a chimera composed of stuff lifted from both the realms of the conscious and the subconscious, the exterior and the interior worlds. It’s the source of fear, which would make it the unknown, yet it assumes material form, possesses corporeal existence, takes a face, and can be hurt. Further, it’s part of a race–a race older and more purposeful than humanity–an  angelic or demonic race–but that’s never wholly explained, at least not to any degree of satisfaction. These beings are described as “beautiful” and “more intelligent” than mere people.

I’ve long held that I am not my body, but rather my thoughts. That even now I am possessing you to some degree as you read this, as my ideas enter your head to rattle about. People are frail things with short lifespans, they only endure for a moment in the cosmic time scale. But a thought can last for a very long time, and despite what V for Vendetta taught a generation of dolts, there actually is a way to destroy an idea–it’s called dialectics.

The entity AM is, in truth, an idea. Her race, the race of monsters, the plastic race of nightmares, exists within us and without us, in the place where our dreams live. The Chowder Society can not be rid of her because she is part of them–an idea they know yet refuse to think about–and so she haunts them, stalks them, kills them.

She’s at home among her friends in the XXX–the clan of degenerate souls who dabble in black magic and sadism–and she’s always on the cutting edge of fashion. She’s not an abducted little girl or a flossy starlet or a worldly woman at the zenith of a golden age doomed to fall. She’s what you don’t know, what can’t be understood, what you don’t want to face.

The argument can be made that AM and her clan are shape-shifters–and that’s what one of the novel’s protagonists concludes–and they are, though not in any conventional sense of the word. But as also observed in the story, if they wanted to they could have wiped us off the face of the planet at any time in the past, yet they didn’t. This implies a need, a symbiosis, a dependence on humanity for some critical aspect of their existence. And this is obvious: No people, no fear, no thoughts. They can’t kill us because they need us, they are us, because they are our darkest thoughts made flesh.

Pretentious? Yes. Accurate? Also yes.

When Straub penned Ghost Story he did for horror what George R. R. Martin is doing for fantasy by abolishing established tropes in favor of a new paradigm in the genre. Where Martin looks at the dynamics of the great houses in A Song of Ice & Fire–deliberately eschewing the “Follow the merry band” model of Tolkien–to produce a more visceral form of high fantasy, Straub eschewed the visceral as symbol of the unquiet sublime and used the quiet sublime as a symbol for the visceral.  It can be argued that if The Haunting of Hill House was the grandmother of quiet horror, Ghost Story is the father.

Going into the 1980s, everything about Ghost Story served as a challenge to the traditional tropes and expectations of the genre. I can point to Freddy Krueger as a child of AM, as with Barker’s Order of Cenobites. The Candy Man and Samara from The Ring owe something of their existence to Straub’s monster. Even Neil Gaiman’s titular Sandman owes something to the tale. Any of those beings that haunt our dreams, that come equally from within ourselves as from without, come to us directly or indirectly from this novel. It really did change the game.


5 thoughts on “Memories, like corpses, rise from the past: Straub’s “Ghost Story”

  1. The fact that the darkness in this story comes from within is why I liked it so much. The haunting was a manifestation of the psychology of living humans, instead of residual energy from the dead. The idea that we create our own monsters, that WE might be the monsters on the inside, is unsettling.

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  2. The ritualistic aspect of the Chowder Society did give off a faint scent of the occult, despite the wholesome appearance on the outside. Old men meeting to talk about their fears has a certain power behind it. It’s the same feeling I get when I hear about Freemasonry or other secret societies.

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  3. Victor I agree with you that Straub was attempting to remove/re-envisage tropes as something unfamiliar and new. The problem though is that some degree of classification is needed otherwise we end up with the boring omnipotent villains we have in comic books. When you say:

    “The argument can be made that AM and her clan are shape-shifters–and that’s what one of the novel’s protagonists concludes–and they are, though not in any conventional sense of the word.”

    I agree that this is precisely what Straub DID, but the problem is with what he didn’t do: provide some taxonomy of his antagonists. Ultimately the words vampire, werewolf, and ghost are used in a flailing about sort of way on the part of our barely sympathetic heroes (I am not a rigid defender of the need for sympathetic heroes, btw…). But whereas you seem to feel this was a strength I would contend that this was one of the book’s defining weaknesses. Also I would say that I am in the camp that the notion of “rambling a bit” is difficult, especially if the material doesn’t provoke a visceral reaction (Sears and Ricky walking about town? Not so visceral…)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s the thing. A haunting isn’t something done by a monster. Taxonomy, definition, classification, categorization of a thing places a definite finger on what that thing is. For a monster story, the reveal can be huge. For a ghost story, if you walk away wondering what that thing was and why it did what it did then the author has done his job (yet not in any conventional sense–rather, the author should provide a reader with alternative theories, none of which wholly satisfies.)


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