Peter Straub’s Ghost Story is a brilliant novel that deals with themes of loss and regret. The novel does this so well that it becomes less about supernatural events and more about the need people have to tell such stories.
The Chowder Society, a group of four men at the start of the novel, is what the action is based around. After the death of their friend, Edward Wanderly, the remaining four members, stuck deep in the guilt they feel toward the situation, start to tell one another macabre stories. It is in this way, the novel becomes about the therapeutic aspect of a good ghost story and not the supernatural events themselves. It is interesting to consider that it is not the past crime that brings on this guilt, but the fact that they might all be paying for it in their old age. This suggests that without the looming punishment of nightmares and death the main characters would not think twice about what happened so long ago. It is only the threat of death that pushes them toward atonement.
At one point in the novel Sears James, the unofficial leader of the Chowder Society, remarks that they need to get the nephew of their dead friend to absolve them of the situation they feel responsible for. This is a concept that is laden with Christian ideals; absolution needs to come from the outside, from a higher authority.
Then toward the end of the novel, when the remaining members of the Chowder Society are about to confess their past crime to Don Wanderly, the nephew of their dead friend Edward and an arguable stand in for a priest, they do so in such a way that mimics a Catholic confessional. When Sears James, Ricky Hawthorne, and Don Wanderly sit before the fire, Ricky says, “That fire was a good idea. It’ll give Sears and me something to look at.” This image conjures to mind the Catholic confessional booth, with both Ricky and Sears speaking of their sins while avoiding Don’s gaze. This idea of anonymity is further supported when Don thinks that the two men were “deep in the well of their story, concentrated on it so wholly that Don, seated near them, felt invisible.” In this way Don is thrust into a role of a higher authority or outsider, the only one who can absolve both Sears and Ricky of their sins.
What this concept suggests about the world at large has also stuck in my mind. When viewed through the pages of the novel, forgiveness becomes a thing that is only necessary when sins are known to the group. Secret sins, like those toyed with through the macabre stories of the Chowder Society, are playful things that pepper the truth with lies. But because the members of the group are all guilty of the same crime they push one another’s need for absolution. Their collective self-image is one of upstanding members of the community, and as such they cannot cope with the secrets of the past because it shatters that image. Thus, they build the fire that will burn their psyche down.
I can’t help but wonder if a crime committed alone is easier to bear because you would not have to share and ultimately face the guilt.