Another book required for my Readings in the Genre: The Haunted for my Master of Fine Arts from Seton Hill University in Writing Popular Fiction is Ghost Story by Peter Straub (Horror 567 pages).
I have to say that this was by far the most difficult assignment for me so far. The rest of the books in this course have been fascinating and moved very quickly. I started this book a couple weeks ago and kept falling asleep while trying to get through it. I don’t know if that was more related to how busy and exhausted I’ve been from work lately or if the subject matter just took too long to draw me in, but I had to restart my readings of this book twice.
I mentioned how it might have been the content that wasn’t keeping me engaged and I think it’s only fair for me to spend some time working to describe why I didn’t find this story as engaging as all of the other books I’ve read for this class so far. Oddly, that means that I marked it up more than the previous books, which kind of makes me think that I might have learned more out of reading a book I didn’t particularly like.
The first issue that really struck me was that the story kept jumping around in time and with characters, which confused me as to what was going on. There were also so many characters that I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to pay attention to and who was just listed to add detail and depth to the story. I think some of the back-and-forth that I experienced was because I couldn’t tell what time frame things were taking place in. The story starts with an unnamed man and an abducted young girl and it takes eight pages before you start getting names to anyone, and they aren’t even the right names to the people actively engaged in the current story. So the Prologue has all the main characters listed, except I didn’t have that “ah-ha” moment of who the abductor was until Don shows up in the main story as someone the Chowder Society wants to write to and encourage to come out to help them with the mysterious violence in their life. I spent most of the book thinking that the Wanderly that’s listed in the prologue is somehow Edward and not Don and that they were all paying for a heinous sin that Edward committed in his youth by abducting and killing a little girl. Obviously, that’s not what happened and the prologue is actually more of a first epilogue. After I finished the book, I appreciated the prologue more, but if I didn’t have to read this book, I probably wouldn’t have kept going after I got into the first chapter.
The second thing that really struck me was how writing popular fiction can actually date your story enough to make it less poignant to readers thirty years later. I marked fourteen places throughout the book that made references that I either didn’t understand at all or couldn’t form a mental picture of in my head. The story references characters looking like actors and actresses, places and events, and a world that is foreign to me, though I suspect that this world would have been intimately familiar to people reading this story twenty or thirty years ago. So in that sense, I think this addresses one of the key concerns of writing popular fiction. Your stories might sell very well during the time when your characters are making references that speak to the readers, but even in another ten or twenty years, some of the concepts in this book won’t make sense to the next generation. The lack of technology, cell phones, the internet, etc., would pose a variety of issues to those who have grown up not fully comprehending how vicious winter could be without modern, technologically designed clothing. Or even what a tape player is and why the main characters in the story couldn’t take pictures of what they saw or do a google search to find out information on the creatures plaguing the town.
The third thing that I wasn’t entirely satisfied with about this story was the incredibly long, densely descriptive paragraphs. I think that also, for me, goes with the feeling that I couldn’t really relate to any of the characters in the story. I didn’t really care about any of them until Don and Peter really entered the story. I actually liked Stella enough to be angry when I thought she was going to be killed when she went out into the snow after Ricky to the Robinson house. While I fully understand that this novel is a mirror of the time when it was written, with certain assigned ethnic and gender roles, that didn’t make me any more comfortable reading about how the world was back then, with women being assigned passive roles, mostly as housewives. I absolutely enjoyed Stella’s role in the story, especially when she made comments about how you could never trust men’s reasoning because they always assumed they had to do everything themselves and how she took action against the thing in the car and killed it *with a hairpin*.
The most sympathetic I became with a character was with Don, the writer, on page 224, “Which is to say no more than that love cut me off at the knees. My notions of getting back to novel-writing vanished. I could not invent feelings when I was so taken over by them myself; with Alma’s enigma before me, the different enigma of fictional characters seemed artificial.” This struck me because it’s exactly where I’ve been in my own life lately. I’m pretty sure it was that paragraph that changed my original opinion of the book. Until that point, I read the story as though I was trudging through snow that was taller than me. It was a chore; it was painful. But after that, I finally had a character that I wanted to cheer for because I related to him and what he was going through.
Overall, I enjoyed the last quarter of this book and thought that the tension started building fairly nicely around halfway to three-quarters of the way through the book. I’m not sure I would have kept reading to get to that point if I didn’t have to, though. I’d probably rate this book as a two. I’m not sure I would ever read it again.