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.