By Peter Straub
While I beg to differ with the title of the novel, I enjoyed this story. That is not to say that there weren’t weaknesses with it. There is no doubt that Straub attempts to emulate Stephen King by trying to tell a tale with such a large cast of characters all within a single town. Where SK excels at this, Straub often left me confused in the who’s who of Milburn. So much of the first half of the book centered on the Chowder Society and its members’ lives that when the rest of the town gets pulled into the story, it’s too late to get to know them all well enough to follow it. And that is where it loses the ghost story aspect of it.
It’s a great idea to use the idea of “the ghost of your past” is coming back to haunt you in the present. The vengeful spirit of a girl accidently drowned would have worked and could have saved about a hundred pages of novel. But that is not the route Straub took and while those are my complaints, I did enjoy the idea of a shapeshifter popping up in the lives of so many interconnected individuals.
The problem is, this story is more a monster story than a ghost story. So, when it is set up as a ghost story and you send your time trying to understand the big secret of the Chowder Society only to discover that this monster has been around for centuries feeding off humans, you’ve lost the personal revenge motive. The shapeshifter is just using memories to gain access to its victims. In that way, none of the rest of the story matters. The ghost stories the Chowder Society told or their individual experiences. While I was trying to put the puzzle together, Straub began throwing more and more into the mix. I still don’t understand the cattle/sheep killings. What is the point if they can so easily manipulate humans and kill them? Were Sears and Ricky seriously supposed to connect those killings to their own paranormal goings on?
The bookended beginning and end also felt unnecessary to me. After all, if Don knew what the girl was and she knew that he knew (which is obvious at the end that she did) then how long is the girl going to let it go on? Where are the others of her kind to step in like the Bate brothers?
What I am saying here is that this book entertained me but it’s no work of great literary accomplishment. Straub had some good material here, a lot of it. I loved the stories within the story, but I think he just wanted to write something complex and it got the best of him.
My current thesis novel weaves the past and present of several characters together so when I see a book that does the same, I get excited. When he focused on his main characters, Straub gave them depth, great backstories, and enough personality, you could easily sympathize with them. I enjoyed spending time in their pasts and their shared nightmares. I liked “reading” Wanderley’s journal entries and “hearing” Sears’ ghost tale of Fenny Bate and his sister. But why couldn’t that ghost have been the cause of this. Eva Galli’s ghost spreading out among them all and their loved ones? Maybe taking down the town that didn’t even bother to search for her or solve her murder. Maybe she was evil, maybe she was somehow possessed but did she have to be a shapeshifter?
Maybe I am just being nit-picky because the book didn’t go the way I wanted it to. I liked his writing style, I liked the stories within a story. I think we could have gotten a little more one on one with some of the secondary characters so I could tell them apart or even remember who they were. I struggled a little with the idea that these shapeshifters who lived so long, could be taken down so easily in the end. But again, I guess I can’t always have a book go exactly the way I want it to (I’m looking at you J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin), but it was a good, easy read even if the title was misleading.