Four elderly gentlemen gather once a week to tell ghost stories by the fire in Peter Straub’s aptly-titled “Ghost Story,” a tale as old-fashioned as its main characters and frightening enough to give its readers a sleepless night or two.
Known as the Chowder Society, these well-to-do inhabitants of fictional Milburn, NY, used to be five in number until a year earlier, when one of their members, Edward Wanderley, died—possibly from fright. His sudden demise and its rumored cause have left the remaining men anxiously speculating about when their time will be up (Tomorrow? Today? Now?), along with persistent nightmares. Ironically, perhaps perversely, the only thing that temporarily assuages their fears is ghost stories. Once upon a time the Chowder Society’s tall tales were fun and perhaps a bit bawdy—“man cave” talk (though in Milburn, the caves were decorated with leather chairs and plush carpeting instead of neon Bud Light signs and flat-screen TVs). But then the stories suddenly took a turn.
It began during the first Chowder meeting after Edward’s death, when Ricky Hawthorne, the most mild-mannered of the group, broke character and asked fellow member John Jaffrey:
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
“I won’t tell you that, but I’ll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me—the most dreadful thing …”
After which they’re off to the races, and meeting to frighten each other becomes a more effective salve than not meeting at all, though their behavior is just one “Yes” or “No” planchette move away from conjuring up Edward’s ghost. Or other ones …
But with the one-year anniversary of Edward’s death closing in, these bump-in-the-night tales appear to have lost their potency. Indeed, the Chowder Society meeting that opens “Ghost Story” includes confessions from each of the men—men who don’t seem prone to ever confess much (in fact, two are lawyers). They all admit to the nightmares of the past year, to an unshakeable fear that Edward died at the hand of Eva Galli—a name they hadn’t uttered in half a century—and that they’re all destined to meet the same dreadful end. “Eva Galli” means nothing to the reader at this point, but that will soon change, as just the simple act of saying her name may have brought her back to Milburn.
What can a writer do when his main characters are helpless old men who don’t know where to turn? He can bring in a young writer to try and save the day! In “Ghost Story,” that writer is Edward’s nephew, Don Wanderley, Edward’s only living heir and, coincidentally, a writer of ghost stories.
“[H]e’s an expert in … in this sort of thing …” reasons Chowder member John Jaffrey, and it’s decided by a 3-1 vote (Ricky Hawthorne being the only “nay”) to bring Don to Milburn in an attempt to exorcise whatever ails them, supernatural or not. But probably supernatural.
When Don does appear, it’s at first in epistolary form—in this case, his journal entries indicating a fair amount of amusement that these old men “see [him] as a Van Helsing!” because he wrote a horror novel. But he does admit:
“[T]hey all do feel a distinct foreboding—I suppose you could say they’re on the verge of being scared of their own shadows … There’s the feeling, definitely, that part of what they want is just someone to talk to. They’ve been talking to themselves for too long.”
It’s clear that Don initially feels like he’s walked into an episode of “Scooby-Doo” sponsored by Metamucil, even though two Chowder Society members are now dead—the second a year to the day after Edward Wanderley—but he believes that they believe something is fishy at best, malevolent at worst. With bizarre and deadly evidence mounting, Don evolves into part “Columbo,” part “Kolchak: The Night Stalker”: Who is Eva Galli? And who is the new arrival to Milburn claiming that Eva Galli was her aunt? Are they connected to The Chowder Society Murders? (Something that would’ve made a great alternative title.) What are these old men revealing to Don (and us), and more importantly, what are they not revealing? Are they paying for something terrible they once did and only appear innocent because they’re elderly … or have they really just been talking to themselves for too long?
“Ghost Story” is one of those terrifically spooky novels that stays with you. After I nearly finished this review I left to get something to eat, and when I returned home, the door to my building opened slightly before I touched it. That might be enough to give me a couple nightmares for the next week. So I will close my review with this: “Sweet dreams.”
Epilogue: “Ghost Story” was made into a 1981 movie of the same name starring the greats from way back: Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Melvyn Douglas, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. I wouldn’t recommend the movie—it’s not bad, really, but it’s also not scary. The old adage of the terror you imagine being worse than what’s shown is definitely at play in the film. And yet, there’s something charming about seeing the old-old guard onscreen together, especially since it was the last film for Fred Astaire and Melvyn Douglas. I hope Eva Galli stayed away from them.