Ghost Story - Peter Straub
Me? Reading ghost stories? Hmm, well. I know, ghosts are really crap and boring, but I'd heard that this book was genuinely scary, and I kind of hoped there wouldn't be any actual ghosts in it. Given the title, that's a pretty bizarre expectation, but I thought it might be a red herring concealing something more interesting. Luckily, that wasn't too far from the truth.
After a flash-forward prologue, featuring the kidnap of a little girl who may be more than she seems, we zoom back in time to a meeting of four old men in the small town of Milburn, NY - the "Chowder Society", who meet fortnightly to exchange ghost stories. The cold days of late autumn are drawing in, and it's been a year since the death of the Chowder Society's fifth member. There are hints that this death was not of natural causes, and hints of some terrible secret much further in the past, which may now be back to wreak revenge - of course, the dark secret remains hidden until near the end, which maintains the suspense, if only because you're desperately hoping it's worth the build-up. As the blizzards rage and the town is cut off, something has started killing the animals, and soon it moves on to people...
Ghost Story was written during the big horror boom of the late seventies, shortly after Stephen King's rise to fame. Comparisons with King's work are inevitable, but at least this is comparable to King at the height of his powers - it's rather like a colder and slightly less colourful version of Salem's Lot. Straub's writing style is very good, and it's an original touch to have the central characters as four old men, so it's a shame that the plot is so formulaic - I was constantly expecting it to be better than it was. There were some interesting ideas about the nature of the horror being driven by the Chowder Society's stories, but they seem rather tacked on and don't really fit with the main plot - and that, unfortunately, is nothing special.
What Straub does do well is atmosphere, and the claustrophobia of the small town as the snow closes in is very nicely evoked; he also does a good job with the sinister characters in the flashback chapters. However, the way the story jumps back and forth in time is quite confusing, for example when Straub (as narrator) lists all the deaths for the next two months but doesn't get to the details until several chapters later. Stephen King definitely wins out as a storyteller - he does pace, vivid characters and basic scariness much better than Straub - but if you're not expecting anything too original, there's still plenty to enjoy here.