Tag Archives: Suspense fiction

Ghost Story

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ghost Story [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Peter Straub.

Straub Ghost Story

Ghost Story was Peter Straub’s breakout novel in 1979, and I remember seeing it in the “new” section of my local public library at the time. The publisher flogged it as a supernatural horror book with literary merit, and it was a fair boast. Straub was an admirable prose stylist, and his monsters have come a long way from their folklore and pulp origins. I found precursor comparanda in some of Seabury Quinn’s semi-traditional creatures and most especially Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think. Straub, who would eventually edit the two-volume American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny for Library of America, consciously adverts to his more literary antecedents Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, even going so far as to name two central characters Ricky Hawthorne and Sears James.

It’s a big book, with the storytelling heft of, say, a full season of the Stranger Things television horror drama. Like that show, it is multigenerational in scope, although Straub’s key ensemble is geriatric rather than adolescent. And Straub’s imagined town of Milburn, New York provides the Hawthorne-to-HPL New England sense of a lost frontier buried deep in the unconscious, rather than the vulnerable bucolic Midwestern sensibility of Hawkins, Indiana. All sorts of characters are powerfully drawn, with relationship tensions extending in every direction.

The body of the book provides several layers of background for the frame story focused on the horror novelist Don Wanderly. There is naturally some metafictional positioning that results, both from Wanderly’s metier and from the ghost-storytelling preoccupation of the Chowder Society, the clique of old friends around whom most of the novel is constructed. The climax takes place in late December, thus attaching the book to the English tradition of the Christmas ghost story, for which those of M.R. James are paragons. While there was less metafictional meat here than in Straub’s later book The Hellfire Club (i.e. Wanderly’s The Nightwatcher is neither so well-developed nor so pivotal to the story as Hugo Driver’s Night Journey), it still put a shine on the writing.

I have not yet seen the 1981 movie which was “loosely based” on the novel, but the book itself gives more than a little attention to cinema. Attorney Ricky Hawthorne is a movie aficionado given to describing people in terms of old screen icons, and he is friends with the proprietor of the local picture show. A key background character Eva Galli was a film actress, having appeared in a single silent film China Pearl (1925), and there is also important business involving a more recent actress Ann-Veronica Moore. The film of Ghost Story turned out to be the final screen appearance of Fred Astaire (in the role of Ricky Hawthorne), and Astaire is actually name-checked in the novel: “… Clark Gable in a bush jacket turning into Dan Duryea in a gangster’s nipped-in-suit turning into graceful, winning Fred Astaire in a Chowder Society tuxedo” (465).

My copy of this book is the first edition, which has a feature of interest extirpated from later re-issues. The chapter “Alma” (181-221) details Wanderly’s previous marital engagement during a brief university gig in Berkeley, California. By way of making the Alma character mysterious and creepy, Straub associated her with something presented as more dreadful than “California lunacy at its worst,” to wit: “O.T.O. … Ordo Templi Orientis … raw material for nightmares” (194-5). Some incidental details demonstrate that Straub’s awareness of O.T.O. was almost certainly based on press coverage of the Solar Lodge pretender organization. In any case, he never presents any specific characters or activities as being part of O.T.O., he just uses the allusion for nebulous menace. Since the actual O.T.O. was operating in Berkeley in 1979, they felt a bit slandered and reached out to Straub, who graciously apologized and made an edit for later printings to change the name to an occult order of his own invention: Xala Xalior Xiati.

The rich character development in this book is the feature that makes it most effective as supernatural horror, in my opinion. You can’t be very afraid for people you don’t care about. On the other hand, there are doubtless adrenaline junkies for whom the pace of this novel with its nested retrospection is just too slow to keep them engaged. (I’ve certainly read complaints to that effect online.) It continues to find a place in “best of” horror indices, and it deserves one.

Pygmy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Pygmy [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Chuck Palahniuk.

Palahniuk Pygmy

Not nearly in the running to be one of my favorite Chuck Palahniuk books, Pygmy still had the author’s twisted sense of humor in evidence. The first-person narrative voice — attributed to the protagonist, terrorist exchange-student infiltrator “Pygmy” — shuns standard English, which, if not a deal-breaker for me, makes it unlikely that I will enjoy a novel much. So I guess it succeeded in that uphill struggle. A representative sentence: “Horde scavenger feast at overflowing anus of world history” (146).

The whole story is over-the-top and not at all believable, but it scores a few obvious criticisms of American culture, while instating (on a more fundamental and tacit level) a defense of that same culture. It amplifies the cartoonish elements evident in earlier Palahniuk work like Survivor. I don’t regret having read it, but I can see how many readers would.

The Adventures of Jules de Grandin

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Adventures of Jules de Grandin [Amazon, Local Library] by Seabury Quinn, introduction by Lin Carter. (See instead: The Complete Tales of Jules de Grandin series.)

Quinn Carter The Adventures of Jules de Grandin

This first volume of the 1970s paperback series reprints seven out of the ninety-three Jules de Grandin stories by Seabury Quinn, including several of the earliest. These began in the 1920s and quickly became a staple of Weird Tales, where they appeared nearly every other month. They were not a serial, however. There is no overarching plot nor development over time of the central characters, who are stock types of an occult investigator and his medical doctor amanuensis. In general, the stories rely on broadly-drawn characters and stereotypes in order to maintain a high tempo and to create a quotidian background for shocking crimes and supernatural menaces.

The sleuth de Grandin himself is an amusingly exaggerated, sword-cane-wielding, mustachioed, gallic scientist of diminutive stature. Most of his adventures take place in the hometown of his host and colleague Doctor Trowbridge, Harrisonville, New Jersey. Being a European in America allows de Grandin to make amusing asides castigating Prohibition, religious bigotry, and other forms of American provincialism. “Today your American courts convict high school-teachers for heresy far less grave than that charged against our Jeanne [d’Arc]. We may yet see the bones of your so estimable Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin exhumed from their graves and publicly burned by your heretic-baiters of this today” (53, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!).

The narrator Trowbridge maintains a naïve skepticism in the face of exotic events that grows less believable with each passing tale. One of the strengths of the stories is their use of menaces drawn from folk traditions and popular culture (vampires and werewolves, for instance) while allowing that the common lore may be inaccurate in its details. Thus the reader can see where de Grandin’s hypotheses are leading him–while Trowbridge refuses even to consider such fanciful notions–but the tension of the unknown is maintained, along with a sense of the “scientific.”

In those points where de Grandin explains or employs occultism as such, the details tend to be fairly flawed. For example, Trowbridge describes a hexagram (and the book even supplies a diagram) but de Grandin calls it a “pentagram” (182). In another adventure, de Grandin calls elemental spirits “Neutrarians,” a term I hadn’t previously encountered, but which appears to have been coined by Elliot O’Donnell in his Twenty Years Experiences as a Ghost Hunter.

These stories are not great works of literature, and it doesn’t seem that anyone has ever mistaken them for such. They are pulp paragons, and one of their attractions is their great variety, from the piracy-and-cannibalism yarn of “The Isle of Missing Ships” to the parapsychological crime mystery of “The Dead Hand.” Quinn’s de Grandin stories frequently served as the basis for the cover illustrations of the numbers of Weird Tales in which they appeared. Even reading them in this mass market paperback reprint, it is easy to spot the moments in the stories that would be chosen for this honor. They usually featured a naked woman in peril. “The Tenants of Broussac” (scene on page 67) and “The Man Who Cast No Shadow” (153-4) are the two stories in this collection that were realized as cover art in their magazine appearances, and it is easy to note Quinn offering similarly “graphic” climaxes in every tale.