Ghost Story

How I wish that a crisis at Popham had not made the years 1977 and 1978 a living hell for me, sapping my energies and demanding all the concentration not already claimed by the preparation of lectures, research for and writing of papers, the demands of students, appearances at Popular Culture symposia and the relentless tedium of academic committees. On the one occasion during those desperate years when I did get to London (I had the honor of giving the keynote address to our International Congress), my twice-daily telephone calls to the Straubs’ new and apparently quite attractive house in the Crouch End area met, when answered at all, with rushed, harried-sounding excuses concerning previous engagements, visiting relatives and the like. As ever innocently self-absorbed, Peter and Susan failed to grasp my simple need for a roof over my head, thereby compelling me to waste a fortune on a room in the conference hotel, where a cup of coffee cost the equivalent of three dollars! (On our gathering’s second day, a Sussex University attendee let me sleep on his floor.) Had it not been for a treacherous attempt to dismantle my Department and reassign me to literature survey courses on the part of an Assistant Dean named Hartley Smoot acting in concert with two convention-bound members of Popham’s English department, and if by evil coincidence I had not been forced at the same time to deal with the false, hysterical allegations made by an erotomaniac female student, I should have steered my old friend back onto the responsible, reasonable path of the honest artisan. Under normal circumstances, I would never have permitted him to plunge into those errors which have since deformed and undermined his work. I would have snatched the manuscript of this misguided, destructive book from his hands and waded through its tangled pages with a machete. Here is what most causes me pain: at the very time Peter was most urgently in need of my help, I was fighting for my career and my reputation — fighting for my life — and could not give him any more than what I could express in two or three letters written with an unquiet mind late at night.

Let us overlook the plot, which, as one reviewer pointed out, might have been drawn from an episode of “Wonder Woman.” In books like this, the plot is of no importance. How it is handled is what matters. Mortals encounter supernatural being, arouse its ire, being returns with blood in its eye. This elementary structure could handily support a brisk little tale of some two hundred pages, but any more weight will cause it to sag. Straub begins with an enigmatic prologue in the style of Joyce Carol Oates, then resorts to the ancient cliche of old fogeys swapping stories in an atmosphere redolent of a men’s club, complete with tuxedos, cognac and leather furniture. All would not have been lost had not my feverish old pal imagined it his duty to bestow literary seriousness upon his project – and by extension, the genre it soon betrays – by cribbing the story we are told from Henry James.

I saw the cart begin to jolt off the path when Peter wrote me that he was adapting “The Turn of the Screw” for a Chowder Society tale and intended to follow it with rewritten versions of stories by Poe and Hawthorne. The reader may offer silent thanks that I found it possible to set aside my hideous problems long enough to warn him, in the most unambiguous tones, against the folly of his scheme. I reminded him of the genre writer’s Fourth Commandment: Thou shalt not commit a literary allusion. Had I failed in my duty as a friend and mentor, this book would be bloated yet further with plagiaristic hommages.

As if this pretentiousness were not bad enough, Peter had by this time fallen under the sway of Stephen King, not in itself a display of poor judgement, since King could have taught him the value of the straightforward narrative single-mindedly depicting the battle between good and evil. Instead, what Peter absorbed was King’s one besetting sin, that of garrulousness. The man is quite simply incapable of brevity, concision is anathema to him, he is in love with the sound of his own voice (and a squeaky, womanish, high-pitched thing is, too.) Once my dazzled friend had internalized King’s, shall we say, regal defiance of legitimate boundaries, his fictions succumbed to rampant elephantiasis, and even his so-called “short stories” mumbled on for fifty, sixty, a hundred-odd pages. Yet Kingish verbosity is hardly GHOST STORY’s greatest flaw.

Here the nudging, irrelevant references to jazz music and musicians run amok. Nearly every minor character bears the last name of one of Peter’s darlings, and a stereotypical, blatantly racist caricature of an African American musician for some reason named “Dr. Rabbitfoot” pops in from time to time, to no discernable point. I tried to persuade the heedless author to delete this material, but he wouldn’t listen. A more significant error in judgement is the inclusion of diaries and invented books within the _bergeschichte, a device which serves only to break up the narrative. Intertexuality is fundamentally unsuited to the gothic, and has no place in genre fiction in general. In later works, this grandiose and exhibitionistic gimmick becomes so uncontrolled that it ultimately overwhelms the text altogether — see THE HELLFIRE CLUB. Even worse, it is in GHOST STORY that my friend accidentally tripped over a theme he mistakenly embraced as a revelation and went on, ruinously, to explore and expand in his next two books. The theme, familiar from vapid, drug-influenced novels and films from the Sixties, is of the indeterminacy of reality: what we see with our own eyes in a waking state is merely partial, visions and dreams represent a higher, better form of truth, the mind altered by chemical substances or extremes of stress is capable of superior perceptions, and so on, ad infinitum.

One of my friend’s most defining traits is literal-mindedness. A literal-minded person in the grip of mystic fancies can only press them to the dubious conclusion that reality itself is a variety of fiction. GHOST STORY avoids this ripely decadent notion, but only barely — it lurks beneath the text, inhabiting scene after scene in which one character or another suffers hallucinations. That the reading public responded positively to this balderdash is…. I don’t what it is, but it’s extremely discouraging to a responsible educator like myself. The reliable Elmore “Dutch” Leonard knew what was up. His review of the book contained the clear-sighted sentence, “This isn’t fiction, it is hype.” The novel does contain some excellent descriptions of snow.

Putney Tyson Ridge