Ghost Story (1981) – I Spit on Your Town

It is easy to see why people might hate this film. After all, it is not and could never be a book by Peter Straub.

The origin story behind Straub’s novel has been extensively documented: Straub has repeatedly stated that Ghost Story was inspired by Stephen King’s early vampire novel Salem’s Lot, a tip of the hat that was later acknowledged by King in his non-fiction collection Danse Macabre where Ghost Story was written up as one of the most influential and structurally effective novels in 20th Century horror. This much we know.

For my part, Straub’s acknowledgement came as something of a surprise as Straub’s approach to fiction has always struck me as quite different to the plodding accessibility of King’s Victorian realism in which the world is just as real and fixed as the characters uncovering it. In Straub’s books, the boundary between world and character is far more mutable, its nuances coaxed into existence by structural complexities and stylistic flourishes designed to keep readers off-balance until a trap is sprung and a particular impression is lodged deep inside the reader’s vulnerable skull. Cocteau famously said that style was a way of saying very complicated things in a very simple manner and Straub is an author who is mostly in the business of using style to coax his readers into receiving certain — often wordless — impressions.

Had Ghost Story been written by Stephen King then one might have described it as the story of a group of old men who are being haunted. As the story unfolds, the men are revealed as having shared a disastrous encounter with a single woman. This encounter not only fills them with guilt, it also seems to account for a litany of emotional crises that have defined their adult lives. Assuming that both world and characters are fixed and real entities, Ghost Story is all about a haunting the grows with the passage of time, consuming not only the lives of the guilty but also the town in which they live. This is the story that John Irvin tried and failed to adapt but the result was a cinematic Ghost Story that is a lot closer to that of Peter Straub than that of Stephen King.

 

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A Paragraph from Peter Straub’s Ghost Story

Last night I picked up my copy of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story (1979) and just started reading. Within a couple of pages, I pulled up short, unable to get past the astonishing beauty and craft of this paragraph:

So for hours they drove south through the songs and rhythms of country music, the stations weakening and changing, the disk jockeys swapping names and accents, the sponsors succeeding each other in a revolving list of insurance companies, toothpaste, soap, Dr Pepper and Pepsi Cola, acne preparations, funeral parlors, petroleum jelly, bargain wristwatches, aluminum sidings, dandruff shampoos: but the music remained the same, a vast and self-conscious story, a sort of seamless repetitious epic in which women married truckers and no-good gamblers but stood by them until they got a divorce and the men sat in bars plotting seductions and how to get back home, and they came together hot as two-dollar pistols and parted in disgust and worried about the babies. Sometimes the car wouldn’t start, sometimes the TV was busted; sometimes the bars closed down and threw you out onto the street, your pockets turned inside out. There was nothing that was not banal, there was no phrase that was not a cliché, but the child sat there satisfied and passive, dozing off to Willie Nelson and waking up to Loretta Lynn, and the man just drove, distracted by this endless soap opera of America’s bottom dogs.

The thing that strikes about this paragraph is the way that it breaks down into three very different sentences. The first – which MS Word is currently underlining entirely in green – is not just a run-on sentence but a run-on sentence comprising little more than a list of things overheard on the radio. Aside from Straub’s eye for set dressing (The South belongs to Dr Pepper and Pepsi… not Coke), the astonishing thing about this sentence is that it in no way feels over-long or under-punctuated. It is easy to forget that punctuation exists in order to instruct the reader where to place emphasis and when to pause while reading ‘aloud in their head’. Straub strings his sentence together using a series of commas and a semi-colon that shifts the emphasis away from the adverts and towards the music. The sentence does not feel too long because Straub chooses his words with utmost care and precision. He chooses them for colour and he chooses them for cadence. He chooses them places them in the sentence in a very specific order so as to ensure that we can read the entire sentence without ever getting lost and without ever having to check the punctuation to make sense of what it is that we have just read. The words and concepts slip by us like the miles of a cross-country road trip. They fit together because we see them together, their association is almost accidental and yet strangely evocative in the same way that shopping trolleys and broken windows create an impression of poverty that has little to do with the bank balances of local residents. The semi-colon is a masterstroke as it changes the emphasis without jerking us out of the rhythm of the sentence. Once it was adverts that flowed by us, now it is song lyrics. They flow into one another and create a single impression almost by accident but seemingly by design.

If the semi-colon was impressive then the full stop is a stroke of genius. Again, we are confronted by a list of things but Straub cleverly inserts the second-person pronoun ‘You’ to suggest a growing bond between the music and the listened. What began as a way to keep the child quiet ends as a reflection on the listener’s life. YOU know what it’s like to be thrown out of a bar. YOU know what it’s like to have a busted TV and nothing to do. YOU know these things and so do the singers and songwriters. They speak to YOU, their words are no longer just a different type of noise to the adverts that started the paragraph. They got to YOU.

The third sentence finds the listener jerking himself out of a country music-filled reverie. The opening clause of the sentence is almost petulant: “There was nothing that was not banal, there was no phrase that was not a cliché” then comes the comma… then comes the BUT. This shit is awful, trite, clichéd nonsense but it lulled the child to sleep and it gave the miles a pleasing feel. Just enough of a pleasing feel to allow the driver to forget that the child on the back-seat has been abducted and that, sooner or later, he will have to be deal with her one way or another. That time will come… but not yet: “the man just drove, distracted by this endless soap opera of America’s bottom dogs.”

Even those last two words are brilliant: Bottom Dogs… Buh-dum Dah!