Ghost Story by Peter Straub employs an unusual and fragmented story structure as well as an atypical use of point of view. This is not just a horror story. It’s also a mystery. Straub used many techniques writers are generally discouraged from using. It’s rather ambitious and I wouldn’t recommend this route for someone new to writing, but in Straub’s hands it worked amazingly well.
The prologue, often advised against in modern fiction, is a brief and disturbing vignette. Once I started reading the book itself, this prologue made little sense (as they often do) but in this case thoughts of that prologue kept surfacing as I read because it had been so disturbing. At some point after Don Wanderly was introduced I realized he was the narrator of the prologue and I tried to figure out how he could have been driven to that point. The why of it isn’t revealed until the epilogue—a brilliant use of those two sections of the novel.
Part one of the novel tells the story of a group of four (originally five) elderly men, all in third-person omniscient point of view. These first chapters spend a lot of time establishing character and move slowly, weaving in and out of their memories through flashbacks and stories (Flashbacks aren’t universally discouraged, but I have definitely seen readers complain about them). We learn that this group’s bond is strong and forged in young adulthood. Aside from Ricky, who is the point of view followed most, and Sears James—only because he’s cantankerous and I like those sorts of characters—the other three men felt somewhat less distinct and I had some difficulty remembering who was who unless or until Straub gave some hint. It’s always difficult with a large cast to create fully distinct and memorable characters, which is why new writers are advised to stick to smaller casts. It turns out the large cast is necessary—to die horribly and to seed clues about the antagonist.
Surprisingly, part two of the novel follows a new character, one that had been mentioned but we had not yet met: Don Wanderly, the nephew of the first of the elderly men to mysteriously die and a writer of a popular horror novel. These chapters are in first-person point of view--the conceit being that we are reading his journal. This occurs twenty-seven percent of the way through the novel. Most novelists would be discouraged from making such a huge shift mid-novel. There were points when I was so immersed in Don Wanderly’s story that I completely forgot part one and all the elderly gentlemen. Truth be told, this is where the novel picked up for me and started to get really interesting.
In part three, sixty percent into the book, Straub brings these men together and we begin to get an inkling for how all of their stories are connected. We’re also back to third person omniscient point of view for the remainder of the novel. Peter Barnes, a high school senior who we met in part one briefly, grows in importance as a character. By the end he, Don, and Ricky could all be described as protagonists. The book is really picking up steam now with hair raising scenes and several deaths, more stories and flashbacks. When Don Wanderly takes a turn at being the focus of point of view his chapters are now being told from third person omniscient like the others. By the end of the novel, all of the disparate pieces of the story are brought together and the mystery is solved. The three men left standing face off with the antagonist and win. Mostly. It happens rather quickly and I do think Straub could have drawn this scene out a bit more. I also had to reread it a couple of times to be sure I understood the sequence of events.
The most delicious part of this book comes in the epilogue—another novel element that isn’t often used. We are back with Don where the prologue left off. We’ve come full circle now and we know why Don is in the state he’s in and we’re rooting for him. He defeats the antagonist and we are treated to complete satisfaction like so seldom happens in horror fiction.
In this novel Peter Straub utilized some unusual techniques. Minor characters became major characters more than halfway through the book. Point of view changes type for one third of the book. There are scads of characters, a prologue, an epilogue, and lots of stories and flashbacks. It could have been a recipe for what not to do, but somehow Straub makes it all work and I was left feeling like he was ingenious.
In 2009, when Paranormal Activity was in theaters, I was stuck at home with a colicky baby. I remember next to nothing of popular culture of that time, so it's probably no surprise that I hadn't heard of this film before it was assigned to me in my current Readings In Genre class.
This is a "found footage" style movie like Blair Witch, but this amateur filmmaker has a steady-cam and a tripod, which makes for less-nauseated viewing. The premise--that a young woman has been bedeviled by nighttime paranormal activity since she was eight-years-old--was plausible and though the acting felt stiff and forced in the beginning, this couple quickly hit their stride in this unscripted production that was filmed for only $15,000 and grossed more than any other film in history. This movie is proof that one doesn’t need a huge budget, elaborate set, or dozens of famous actors to make an effective and successful film. It’s all about the story one tells—and the way it’s told.
Shot entirely inside a two-story home, day and night, over the course of one week, the setting seemed utterly realistic and the couple improvised their dialogue, even flubbing their speech naturally, to the point that I quickly suspended all disbelief and became engrossed in their troubles.
I really liked how the haunting seemed to progress in this tale. Micah gets more and more agitated as he attempts to understand and solve the problem. In turn, Katie's fears are amplified, and the entity--which seems to be feeding on her fear--grows stronger.
One of the things I appreciated about this flick was the choice to keep the violence off-camera, more like classic horror films. You can do a lot with the power of suggestion—and save a lot of money on CGI. I personally don't believe that seeing violence makes a movie more scary. The unknown is what is scary. Whatever happened to Katie and Micah in that dark back bedroom is terrifying enough when we simply hear the sounds and see their shock-stricken expressions. I'll admit to having to remind myself that it was just a movie more than once as I watched.
It really has the feeling of a docudrama. I especially liked the time lapse footage when they were sleeping. And in this instance at least, the found-footage conceit really works. By the end, the couple has generated so much chemistry that their body language, expressions, and actions felt entirely true. The close quarters and grueling work of 24/7 filming for a week probably contributed to that feeling that they were a real couple in the middle of something terrible.
What this film really demonstrates is that a haunted house need not be a lavish mansion or even be set in an exotic or remote locale. A plausible premise, believable characters, and a series of spooky occurrences will set people's spines twanging. Short scenes like them woodenly eating take-out with blank stares added to the realism. The tension increased as the characters make bad judgement calls, disagree with each other, and get strange advise from a psychic. Suddenly a door moving on its own or a swinging light fixture becomes terrifying.
We can do the same thing with our fiction. A haunted house story doesn’t have to be set in a dark and stormy night in a ramshackle house on the edge of a cliff. With a good plot, plausible premise, and realistic dialogue, a spooky atmosphere can take over any locale—and give us the shivers we desire.
(Warning for readers of this blog who are not my classmates: there are spoilers in this post. Read at your own risk.)
While I don’t read a lot of horror, this isn’t my first book by Richard Matheson. I knew going in that Matheson, who published this book in 1971 and passed in 2013, was “a product of his time,” as is so often said to excuse deceased white men who made terrible choices. I read I Am Legend just a few years ago. And, yeah, I noted that his protagonist Neville liked to only experiment on female vampire-zombies and how he sealed his vampire-zombified wife up in a living tomb. It bothered me only a little at the time.
In the past I read for pleasure, not to analyze or pick apart a book or a novelist. But I’m more than just a casual reader working to maintain my geek cred now. I’m an MFA student and a professional author that works very hard to be inclusive in my own books. And in this book, Hell House—considered by many to be a cult classic—Matheson lets his misogynist-racist-homophobic flags fly. So while I’m sure a lot of people are sick of people writing about these issues that exist in our favorite books from the past, given who I am and what I believe in, if I’m assigned to write about this book, I’m going to focus on these issues. If we don’t ever talk about these things, they’ll never change. And while I enjoyed reading this book, certain elements are extremely problematic whether Matheson wrote them consciously or not. We look to our idols to help us form our ideals. So, let’s highlight them.
We can start with little things. Incidental patriarchy, let’s call it. Both female characters in this book are nearly always referred to only by their first names. The men? Almost always by their surnames—or in the case of Dr. Barrett, by his surname plus his honorific. I've noticed this tendency in my own writing and have wrestled with what it means. I've concluded that innately this is a tendency to be more personal when it comes to women and to give more respect to men.
In addition, Dr. Barrett dismisses everything Florence says—at times even before she says it. Since Fischer, as her colleague, says next to nothing in her defense, she has no one backing her up or questioning Barrett--a missed opportunity for tension. In addition, instead of doing the job he’s being paid to do—work with Florence—Fischer says she should just go home. In fact, at one point Fischer makes the statement that Florence was the weakest link of the four of their party. If that were the case, as the most experienced medium when it came to Hell House, shouldn't it have been his duty to encourage working together and deciding together about safety measures that could be taken?
Moving on to characterization. We know little of Edith except that she nearly killed herself once when her husband went away without her for a week. We are supposed to believe that she is so mentally weak that loneliness nearly drove her to suicide—and it never once occurred to her to go visit a friend or anything. Barrett, her husband, seems to be aware of her lack of mental fortitude because he doesn’t want to leave her alone for a minute. She’s a fearful clingy wife with a weak constitution and an innate proclivity to alcoholism when under stress, who needs the presence of her husband to survive. That’s her characterization.
Florence’s characterization is just as flawed, though it is developed far more. She is depicted as an impulsive, reckless, idealist religious zealot. She believes that the souls trapped in Hell House can be freed by love alone if she just prays enough. She keeps herself “open” to the entity inside Hell House despite knowing the history of what had happened there (and her female predecessor that committed suicide after three days inside the house). Florence is so gullible, she invites a whining wheedling ghost to ‘make love to her’ because that’s what he says he needs to be free. I mean, most women have heard that sort of talk before, usually in the backseat of a car, as a teenager. Most women wouldn't fall for it. Both female characters take their turn playing Ophelia, wandering around the house alone muttering their paranoia. Both exist to be watched over, rescued, and to make stupid mistakes of the sort that the men do not make at all--like sleep walking to their near-death, or stripping naked in front of a stranger while her husband is upstairs sleeping, or inviting a spirit to have sex with her.
To Matheson's credit, the men aren't exonerated from making stupid mistakes. Dr. Barrett's fatal mistake is being too certain in his convictions (that's not how science works, boys and girls--scientists are always aware that their theory could be proven incorrect). Fischer, on the other hand, is depicted to be just as weak as the women, though in other ways. He enters the house and does absolutely nothing--which he admits by the end of the book. This is a self-protective measure that makes him look like an inconsiderate, selfish coward. Of course he manages some introspection and bravery by the end--after his aha moment.
I expected to be shocked and horrified when I read this book. That's part of the fun of the horror genre. I did not expect that shock and horror to be in the form of sexual violence against women. The men in this book are attacked by the invisible entity inside Hell House multiple times, but never in a sexually-violent way. Florence, however, is first raped by a ghost who then possesses her and then later is raped again by the enormous-phallus-adorned statue of Jesus in the chapel. To escape the possession and the knowledge that she foolishly allowed Belasco to trick her and rape her more than once, she commits suicide—just when we’re beginning to hope they’ll all get out of there alive, too. She's not entirely useless, though. She used the knowledge gained as she's dying to leave a clue for the other members of the party.
Personally, if the men in the story had got their genitals messed with a bit, all the raping wouldn't be quite so problematic. But the men get burned, bruised, cut, knocked out cold, and drowned--but their penises remain entirely unviolated. Lucky for them. I think penile mutilation would be fairly horrific. Is it too horrific for a man to write?
Let’s move on to homophobia. Matheson reveals that Edith’s father was thwarted in an attempt to rape her when she was younger and that her mother instilled in her a disgust for sex—both of which Edith believes put the seed in her mind that she might have tendencies toward lesbianism and ultimately led her to marry an impotent man. She seeks to prove that she isn’t a lesbian by attempting to seduce Fischer twice. I acknowledge that the way American culture viewed homosexuality in the 1960s and 1970s made life more difficult for gay folks. So, while the feeling of fearing oneself might be gay because one became aroused in the presence of a naked body of the same biological sex is actually realistic for the time period, it’s simply not necessary to the plot. The whole book is full of gore and debauchery—Matheson is stacking lesbianism right up there on the debauchery side. Not okay.
And finally we move to the topic of racism. Florence’s spirit guide is an “Indian” who does everything but say “How.” (Háu is a Lakota greeting that was adopted by popular culture as a part of the trappings of caricatures of Native Americans. It was used a lot in popular culture from the 50s to the 70s.) Matheson even employs broken speech and incomplete sentences. There is no reason—plot, character, or otherwise—for her spirit guide to be Native American except that it’s a stereotype and Americans liked to portray Native Americans as being spiritual and shamanistic back then. It’s lazy writing. The spirit guide could have been anyone of any ethnicity—or no identifiable ethnicity at all. It just wasn’t an important part of the plot. If he felt it was needed for the words the spirit guide said to be hard to understand or obscure it would have been easy enough to do that employing any number of devices—like poetic speech, flowery speech, antique vernacular, foreign languages, or unknown terminology—any of those would still have allowed Fischer to have his aha moment at the end of the novel, if carefully devised.
In the end, it is a man (Fischer) who finally figures out what was actually going on all along and defeats the entity with mere insults. A man developed the device that actually would work against spirits haunting a house (if the male spirit hadn’t been so prescient and devious as to kill himself by locking himself inside a secret lead-lined room to prevent his own dissipation.
I suppose one might think that I didn’t enjoy reading the novel because of all of these issues. Quite the contrary. This was written to be pure entertainment and it was highly entertaining to read. But as modern thinking people we can’t keep giving these old books a pass because they were a product of their time. Instead we have to learn to say: you’ll love reading Hell House by Richard Matheson. It’s a fun read. But also give the caveat: be aware of the existence of sexism, racism, homophobia, and sexual violence against women within those pages.