Literary fiction can travel quite a distance on boldness and inspiration, but genre novels
require, above all, craftsmanship. The horror novel, in particular, relies on carefully
planned and executed effects, and the author who embarks on the goal of terrifying the
reader must remain as cold-blooded and calculated as an arch criminal in producing
them. There is no place to hide in this kind of storytelling: these narratives aim at a
visceral transformation in the audience—the spine must tingle! hairs must stand on end!
the pulse must race!—and the writer who fails on these counts, fails absolutely. Cleverness
and experimentation on their own can’t pull this off, but method and craftsmanship can.

Critics who have developed their literary tastebuds on
more effete fare may easily misjudge the degree of difficulty
involved in such endeavors. Indeed, the craft of terror can
be, in many situations, just as demanding as the requirements
of stream-of-consciousness, meta-narrative and the other
academically sanctioned approaches to fiction. Yet even today,
critics will sometimes dismiss
H.P. Lovecraft, one of the most
powerful prose stylists of his day, with smug putdowns. (Peter
Damien recently proclaimed that "he was a godawful writer. He
was so bad. I really cannot stress this enough.”) And they ignore
the time-tested successes of
Richard Matheson, Stephen King
and other masters of the horror genre, at times even pointing
to these authors’ popularity as self-evident proof of their lack
of skill. Not long ago, they did the same to
Edgar Allan Poe
at the time of his death he was lambasted by his own biographer
as a drunkard, drug addict and lunatic. In
fact,  American literati
had to be re-educated by the French on the merits of their own
native son.

I say this as preamble to a discussion of Peter Straub’s 1979 novel
Ghost Story which might,
at first glance, be considered a mere…well, a mere ghost story. Nothing could be more
familiar, less experimental. If the purpose of the postmodern novel is to call attention to
its existence as a fictional construct, the goal in Straub’s work is the exact opposite. For its
effects to work, they must remain unobtrusive and taken-for-granted. The last thing we
want a horror novel to do is to call attention to the behind-the-scenes manipulations that
undergird its effects—as with a magic trick, the revelation of the mechanisms at play dispel
the magic, or in this instance, the horror.

A ghost story, what could be simpler? But if you mapped out a flow chart of this book on
a sheet of paper…you would soon need a bigger sheet of paper. And then you would
probably fill up the larger sheet, and require a big slab of butcher paper, enough maybe
to wrap a ten-pound roast, a slab of steaks, and a pork butt. Then, and only then, you
might have sufficient space to sketch a blueprint for this book.

Straub starts with a gritty interlude of a strange kidnapping involving an anxious abductor
and a strangely complacent abductee, but we only later realize that this tale falls
chronologically almost at the conclusion of the story.  We will also learn, hundreds of
pages later, that the victim in this part of the story is a manifestation of the villain in a
later (that is to say, earlier) juncture in the narrative.  I may start to confuse you if I
mention that this malleable character appears in at least four other forms, under as
many different names, in
Ghost Story. Yes, my abbreviated description makes it sound
confusing, but once you are immersed in Straub's novel, the complex twists and turns
are handled so deftly that you never notice the intricacy of the plot or the convolutions
of the structure.

What else do we have here? Well, where should I begin? At least a half-dozen characters
seem ready to emerge as the main protagonist of this novel, and Straub moves them
through their paces as if he were a chess grandmaster anxious to prove that even pawns
can do the works of rooks and knights. Dozens of subsidiary characters also enter into
the proceedings, and they often get thrust into the center stage to push the drama
forward. Almost as many ghosts appear, and each of these has an agenda and a very
personal way of haunting. Several romances flourish…and end in unexpected ways,
and these aren't—as often the case in horror novels—grafted awkwardly on to the plot,
but carry it forward in crucial ways. Various haunted houses figure in the story, each with
its own quirks. Somehow Straub manages to tie all these strands together with nary a
loose thread showing.

The chronology, for its part, never really falls into a sequential pattern, and the full
story eventually requires a number of leaps and dashes across a period of more than
fifty years, and the geographical settings span the entire United States, from the
Berkeley campus to upstate New York to Florida. For a lengthy stretch, Straub moves
into first-person narration, but then switches back to a semi-omniscient third-person.  

I could go on and on, but as even this thumbnail sketch makes clear, this is an ambitious
story with many moving parts.
I could praise it in many ways, but perhaps the best way
of doing so is by comparison with the acknowledged leader in the field of contemporary
horror. In my opinion, Peter Straub is the closest rival to Stephen King in matters of
formal mastery, the nuts and bolts of constructing a well-told horror tale, among living
writers.


But here’s the key thing: the reader is hardly aware of the flurry of activity behind the
scenes, since the action on stage is so compelling. People are dying under strange
circumstances in Milburn, New York, and our anxious reader simply wants to find out
what malevolent power is behind it, and how it can be stopped.  In time, we learn that
a long dark history is behind these happenings, and perhaps an even more ominous one
lies ahead. Yet the complexity unfolds so gradually, and with such irresistible momentum,
that the reader plows ahead oblivious to the deft planning and execution required to
construct the lengthy chain of events that comprise Straub’s narrative.

The epicenter of these horrors is as unlikely

as can be. A group of stately older gentlemen
in the town of Milburn have been gathering

together for friendly banter and refreshments
for the last half century. The participants

include two lawyers, a doctor, a retired hotel
owner, and a ghostwriter (the pun may be

intended).  They call themselves the Chowder
Society—the name applied derisively by one of

the member’s wife—and these pillars of the
community engage in a host of harmless rituals.
They dress in formal attire for their meetings,
and their lighthearted gatherings take an eerie turn after the unexpected death of one
of their members—the ghostwriter, of course. In the aftermath, they now spend their
time together sharing ghost stories. But these ghost stories have an uncanny way
of intruding into their day-to-day life, or—perhaps even more upsetting—their recurring
nightmares.  

Occasionally Straub gets flashy—and is not above inserting erudite references to
Nathaniel Hawthorne and Stephen Crane into the text. More often, the allusions are
subtle ones, such as the nod of the head to the Bates Motel of
Psycho fame or to the
horror films
Carrie and Night of the Living Dead. But our author here isn't really
anxious to call attention to himself. His writing is always supple, never awkward, and
rarely ostentatious. Every detail is meant to fit into a larger picture, and those in turn
eventually fit in with other images on an even larger canvas.

And, yes, this work succeeds on the most important level of all for a horror story—it
provokes dread and anxiety. It keeps you turning the pages. It is haunting, in all the best
and worst ways.

Of course, we expect that in a ghost story. But even authors who scorn genre and aspire
to highbrow legitimacy might benefit from reading this particular
Ghost Story. Believe it
or not, they might even learn some writing lessons from it. For those who look down on
the horror genre that could be the scariest takeaway of them all from this well-honed
book.  


Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz from
Basic Books.


Publication Date: October 11, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
annus
horribilis
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
Dracula
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
Carrie
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
Tales
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
Nausea
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James

Week 16:
Rosemary's Baby
By Ira Levin

Week 17:
The King in Yellow
By Robert W. Chambers

Week 18:
Rebecca
By Daphne Du Maurier

Week 19
The Woman in the Dunes
by Kōbō Abe

Week 20
The Dark Eidolon
by Clark Ashton Smith

Week 21
Off Season
by Jack Ketchum

Week 22
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3
by Clive Barker

Week 23
The Silence of the Lambs
by Thomas Harris

Week 24
The Orange Eats Creeps
by Grace Krilanovich

Week 25
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Week 26
Psycho
by Robert Bloch

Week 27
Fledgling
by Octavia E. Butler

Week 28
Demons by Daylight
by Ramsey Campbell

Week 29
The Complete Short Stories
by Ambrose Bierce

Week 30
Pet Sematary
by Stephen King

Week 31
Our Lady of Darkness
by Fritz Leiber

Week 32
Grendel
by John Gardner

Week 33
White is for Witching
by Helen Oyeyemi

Week 34
The Wasp Factory
by Iain Banks

Week 35
King Kong
by Edgar Wallace

Week 36
The Castle of Otranto
by Horace Walpole

Week 37
The John Silence Stories
by Algernon Blackwood

Week 38
The Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter

Week 39
The Other
by Thomas Tryon

Week 40
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro

Week 41
Ghost Story
by Peter Straub
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction

The Cold-Blood Storyteller

A Look Back at
Peter Straub's Ghost Story
Essay by Ted Gioia
To purchase, click on image
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.
Fledgling

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gardner, John
Grendel

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel
Submission

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen
Carrie

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.
Tales

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram
Dracula

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal


Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List



Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

_____


SF Site
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Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog


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All rights reserved.
In my opinion, Peter Straub
is the closest rival to Stephen
King in matters of formal
mastery, the nuts and bolts
of constructing a well-told
horror tale, among living writers.