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.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Hell House: Similarities in Characters but a Difference in Conclusions

While reading Hell House by Richard Matheson, it was tough not to draw comparisons between it and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, particularly when it comes to the characters of the stories.  There’s no doubt that Matheson took some of the traits and identities of Jackson’s characters and injected them into his own.  The most obvious one is probably the scientist who goes to the house in order to discover the truth behind the hauntings.  In Hell House, it’s Dr. Barret.  In Hill House (note the similarity in the name of the house in the titles, too), Dr. John Montague.  Both of their jobs are to unravel the source of the hauntings, and they both attempt to do it from the standpoint of a scientist: they believe that science, rather than supernatural or spirit-related phenomena, can explain it. 
In both books, there’s the character who has a direction connection to the house prior to the start of the story.  In Hell House, it’s Fischer, who is the sole survivor of the tragedies of the house in the past.  In Hill House, it’s Luke, whose aunt owns Hill House.
Eleanor from Hill House is also a little like Edith from Hell House.  They come from bitter mothers or at least a troubled family past.  Eleanor had to look after her mother throughout her life, and because of that felt she was denied having her own life, whereas Edith’s mother influenced her negatively as well, as is revealed on page 110 of Hell House: “Edith twisted on her back and glared up at the ceiling.  What’s the matter with me, anyway? she thought.  Just because my mother told me sex is evil and degrading, do I have to fear it all my wife?  My mother was a bitter woman, married to an alcoholic woman-chaser.”  Both of them have to deal with their similar family pasts at their respective haunted houses.
In Hell House, Florence is similar to two characters from Hill House.  By nature she believes strongly that spirits or supernatural phenomena are responsible for the hauntings of Hell House.  This is very similar to Dr. Montague’s wife in Hill House, Mrs. Montague.  Both have strong personalities in that they believe they are undeniably correct about the fact that the house is being haunted by spirits (of course, you could say that the scientists are equally stubborn in their beliefs, creating great tension in the stories).  Florence keeps trying to open up and communicate with the spirits of Hell House, particularly Belasco’s son, whereas, similarly, Mrs. Montague arrives at Hill House with a planchette, which is used to communicate directly (or at least somewhat directly) with spirits.
Florence is also like Eleanor from Hill House in that she “goes insane,” so to speak.  In Hill House, it eventually becomes apparent that Eleanor has lost her mind.  She’s walking around the house at night, hardly aware she’s doing it and not even knowing where she’s going.  She also hears voices in her head, etc.  The same can be said about Florence.  Because she is so open to the “spirits” of Hell house, she is constantly speaking with them (the other characters usually don’t have actual conversations with them), and eventually even becomes possessed by a spirit (Belasco).  While that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s lost her mind, she certainly has lost control of it, since Belasco takes it over and makes her do certain things that she wouldn’t normally do (such as attempting to have lesbian love with Edith).  To some degree all the characters become a bit possessed or at least influenced by Belasco and do certain things they’re not aware of, so there’s a little of Eleanor in everybody, but Florence by far gets the brunt of it.
This leads me to my last point: the differences in conclusions between the two books.  In Hill House, the reader never learns what actually happened to Eleanor.  Did she truly go mad or was there really a “ghost” or “spirit” that influenced her, etc.  In Hell House, the reader is given the exact reason for the hauntings: a corrupt, egotistical spirit with a Napoleonic Complex named Belasco is in charge of everything.  All the loose threads are wrapped up, and the reader is left satisfied.  At least, that’s how I felt.  I much prefer the ending to Hell House to Hill House, because I got what every story promises: a reason for everything.  I can sleep at night knowing what really happened at Hell House, but, sadly, I’ll never know the truth about Hill House.
Source: Matheson, Richard. Hell House. New York: Tor, 1999.