Peter Straub’s 1979 Ghost Story is a stand-alone horror novel.
Dr. John Jaffrey, businessman Lewis Benedikt, and lawyers Sears James and Ricky Hawthorne are members of Milburn, NY’s so-called Clam Chowder Society. For half a century, they have met to share outrageous stories. Of late, their tales have inclined to the macabre. This is because until one year ago, there were five members of the Society, not four.
Last year’s party was intended as a celebration of Ann-Veronica Moore, the latest inappropriately young actress on whom Dr. Jaffrey’s wandering eye had fallen. The results were anything but celebratory.
During the party, Edward Wanderley’s corpse was discovered; the corpse has a rictus of horror on its face. For the last year, Edward’s death has weighed on his friends. Thus, their current taste for morbid stories.
There have also been various disquieting events.
The quartet finally admit that something seems to be wrong and reach out to Edward’s nephew Donald, who, having written an occult novel, might understand what is happening.
By the time Donald arrives, Jaffrey is dead, an apparent suicide. Although his friends cannot know this, the reader is told that Jaffrey was enticed into the river where he drowned. It seems that the group is being actively targeted for persecution and death.
Benedikt, Hawthorne, and James admit to an old crime. Decades before, they accidentally killed Eva Galli. Rather than deal with the scandal that would have followed reporting her death, they quietly disposed of her body by placing it in a car and driving the car into a deep pond. Or at least, they tried to. Eva’s corpse vanished just before the car sank.
One possible explanation is that the men are being stalked by the shadow of the woman they accidentally killed. Unfortunately for them, the truth is worse. A seemingly indestructible supernatural entity has been toying with them for decades. All of the women are simply identities that the shapeshifter adopted as part of its game. Its playing pieces now old, it is time to inflict on the old men (and anyone unlucky enough to be near them) terrible deaths.
The novel has a framing sequence in which Donald kidnaps a little girl named Angie, for reasons that are initially unclear. This is, of course, yet another manifestation of the shapeshifter so of course Donald is perfectly justified in kidnapping her in a bid to kill her before she gets around to killing more people; he’s not indulging his inner Humbert Humbert. It takes most of the book for that bit to be explained.
Not all of the women in this novel are malevolent man-eaters, only most of them. To balance that, the multitude of predatory women are revealed as the same inhuman in a variety of guises. Ricky and Stella Hawthorne are happily married. Stella proves far more capable than most of the men when she is threatened by the group’s enemy. One gets the sense that had the shapeshifter’s primary target been Stella and her friends, this would have been a novella.
There is one scene in the novel in which our rapidly dwindling crew of protagonists decide to investigate a building they believe is connected to their enemy. Having invaded their enemy’s stronghold, they then split up. This works out more poorly for them than it does for the Scooby Doo gang. This celebration of an old trope illustrates that the men aren’t simply outmatched. They are also prone to terrible decisions1, which may explain why they in particular were selected as prey.
This novel is immense by Disco Era standards. The mass market paperback is almost 600 pages long. This provides the author with room for a leisurely told tale, one that winds its way towards the end with a multitude of digressions.
As I was rereading this book, I was struck by parallels with Tim’s Powers’ The Stress of Her Regard. However, I have not reread Stress in decades. Do I misremember? Perhaps Powers’ book should be placed somewhere in Mount Tsundoku.
One cannot help but notice that the seemingly unkillable shapeshifter and its quasi-undead underlings are surprisingly killable once a sufficient fraction of the book has passed. Presumably the monsters know this, and part of the reason they play up their supposed indestructability is to discourage attempts to test the limits of their durability. Still, somewhat disappointing ending aside, the novel is atmospheric as hell and an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.
1: One terrible decision was the attempt to hide Eva’s body.
The men also believe that their bad choices are always someone else’s fault.