Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Ghost Story: Misleading Prologue?

Overall, I enjoyed Ghost Story.  I think mostly because of the dynamics of the Chowder Society.  All the old men who make up the group are well-drawn and very likable.  I felt like I was following the stories of four (perhaps five with Don Wanderley; we never really know Edward) protagonists, and that was a good thing in this instance!
I think that one of the more interesting, though potentially confusing, aspects of the novel is the prologue.  I don’t know if it did this for other readers, but I feel like it misled me.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – well, it is in a sense.  I will explain shortly.
The prologue starts off with a man (Don) who has kidnapped a girl and clearly intends to kill her, though he has a problem doing such a thing.  On page four of the prologue, I got the sense that he wasn’t in charge of what happened to the girl, though: “The child was sleeping with her back straight against the seat, her mouth closed.  She appeared to be perfectly composed.  He still did not know what he was going to have to do to her.”  The fact that he’s uncertain what he needs to do with her made it sound to me like he wasn’t the only person involved, that he was perhaps doing this as part of a “job” for somebody else.  This was only confirmed for me on page eight when Don asks the girl if she’s ever heard of Edward Wanderley, Sears James, or Ricky Hawthorne.  I figured these were the other men somehow involved in this murder, that they were the ones who wanted her dead.  In a sense that’s true, but not really.  In reality, as we learn later (as in, at the end of the novel), they don’t even know that Don’s kidnapped this girl and is going to murder her.
Nevertheless, this initial “misleading” made me think throughout the entire novel that the ghost that haunts and attempts to kill off the Chowder Society is the little girl that Don supposedly killed in the prologue.  I kept trying to make the connection back to her, kept trying to figure out why the Chowder Society had had to kill this little girl, kept trying to find connections to that horrible deed, especially since the members of the Society seemed like such nice men who I wanted to root for.
Anyway, looking back, I realized that I was totally wrong with this assumption.  It wasn’t even possible, since the Chowder Society doesn’t even meet Don until later in the book, so how could their supposedly “collaborative” murder of the young girl take place in the past? Looking back, I think part of the reason I was confused is because the full identity of the man in the prologue (Don Wanderley) is only mentioned once.  Peter Straub then refers to him as Wanderley after the first time, and as we know, there are a few Wanderleys throughout the story (Edward, David, and Don), so that helped to confuse me.  If I had gone back and confirmed that Don was the murderer of the little girl, then I would have known that it couldn’t have been a past event.  But going back is not my job as the reader, of course.  Also, this book is just full of characters (might I say even bursting?) – right from the beginning – so it was easy for me to forget exactly who was in the prologue, especially with the Wanderley confusion (the Chowder Society starts off talking about Edward Wanderley, who is dead, then segways into sending a letter to his nephew Don).  Maybe I’m just easily baffled.
Either way, I was convinced the Chowder Society had killed the young girl a long time ago for a special reason, that they had been blackmailed into doing it or something (which would explain Don’s apparent hesitancy or difficulty in actually killing her).  That’s why I was surprised to learn that she wasn’t the ghost at all.  It was Eva Galli, a shapeshifter-woman who they accidentally killed in their youth.  This made me really want to draw a connection to the young girl who died in the prologue, whom there appeared to be no clues drawn to, and I was finally satisfied to learn at the end that she was the shapeshifter reborn.  At least I got my answer, though I felt like I had been misled throughout the entire book.  In a way it was a good thing, because a big reason why I kept turning the pages (aside from the fact this is my school assignment) was to finally find out why the Chowder Society apparently kidnapped and killed this girl.  But then again, that’s a bad sign for Straub, because he made things a bit unclear, at least for me.
Was anyone else “misled” or confused by the prologue or was it just me?

Source: Straub, Peter. Ghost Story. New York: Pocket Books, 1979.

7 comments:

Anita said...

I haven't read this book, but I've read other horror stories that mislead. There should be a name for that sort of book, so we could go, "That was so bentorang," or whatever. Anyway, I find that "technique" frustrating. It's okay to surprise your reader, but not mislead them.

Jennifer Loring said...

I'd read the book before so it didn't confuse me, but I can see where a first-time reader might not understand that the prologue actually takes place after the events detailed in the rest of the book. The prologue is actually one of my favorite parts of Ghost Story; my issues with the novel surface later on.

Creature said...

The beginning and ending feel like they belong in different stories and I had a hard time reconciling them with the rest of the novel, even as I figured out what was going on.

Good analysis.

John Dixon said...

Like Jenn, I'd read the book before, so it wasn't confusing, but I don't remember being bothered by in my own past, either. As to the Wanderly confusion, etc..., I like the way the ghosts in this blur time and identities. I like their lack of containment and the seeming schizophrenia of their manifestations. The Eva-Galli-Wendigo-Thing does reach out in one form to Donald and David, of course, and I don't think the girl she seemingly starts as back in 1929 really dies... or is actually even a girl at all.

Still, I can completely understand how people might not like the "bookends" of this novel.

Kristina said...

I know you were a little worried about this post but I think you've touched a nerve with a lot of readers. The prologue and epilogue don't fit in so neatly with the rest of the book, and I do think the prologue is misleading. I hadn't read "Ghost Story" until this class (did see the movie though) but I did get a little bit of a cheat at last June's residency. Lawrence Connolly cited it as an example in his "How to Build Narrative Tension" so I knew that I wouldn't hear about what happened in the opening 'til the very end of the novel. The idea is that sometimes, if you start in media res, you can build tension...I personally didn't feel it, and I don't think I would even if I knew how the book was structured in advance. There was so much that happened in between the opening and closing that I almost forgot Wanderly was in the car kidnapping a young child.

Laurie Sterbens said...

I was also mislead by the prologue though in a slightly different way. I was dreading reading a novel about a child killer, but by the end of the chapter I realized there was something very different, even dangerous, about this girl. And fortunately I picked up on the "A.M." names pretty early on, which helped me understand where we were going. But I was hoping the epilogue would match up better with the prologue; that we would go back to that point and deal with the little girl.

Tanya said...

Chris, of course, you know that I also had the same reaction to the prologue. I mention feeling like it was a "bait and switch" tactic. I know he does work it together in the end, but I think it takes far too long to do that. I was so angry about that by the time I got to the end that it really affected my ability to enjoy the entire book. I kept wanting that original story to come back.