"Guilt is like a witch's spell. Once cast it cannot be reasoned away." --Reed Farrel Coleman, Walking The Perfect Square
The truth of that aphorism buzzes around in my own head as I once again read Peter Straub's Ghost Story--in which the guilt is diffuse, contagious, absorbing, pervasive. Like the annoying deer flies that come right back to light on you no matter how many times you've brushed them off, no matter how many you've swatted dead.
That's no deer fly on the first edition dustjacker cover, but rather a wasp which the shape-changing personification of the guilt has morphed into, having previously been seen in the novel as different witch/women and then a lynx.
I prefer the art on the cover to the left, which shows the shape-shifting woman/lynx. When different men of the Chowder Society confront her and ask her who she is, she replies, "I am you," which means that she is that part of their minds which are respectively suppressed--mostly their collective guilt for a deed long buried in the past, but also at times their sexuality and the suppressed animal side of their nature--which is where the lynx comes in.
The movie abandons the lynx, as it abandons the other incarnations of the woman, to retain the one, Alma Mobley. I at first greatly preferred the book, but now the nuances of the movie blur into the novel and my interpretation can no longer do without either one of them.
Some critics said that it looked like John Houseman was the only one having any fun in the movie, but I think that this was by design. The macabre is everywhere twined with irony and dark humor. Actor Melvyn Douglas is discussed in the text of the 1979 novel, then he appears as a main character in the 1981 movie.
Two of the five members of the Chowder Club are named Hawthorne and James respectively, a tribute to Nathaniel Hawthorne and M. R. James. Nathaniel Hawthorne provides the book's first epigraph: "The chasm was merely one of the orifices of that pit of blackness that lies beneath us, everywhere." R. D. Jameson provides the second epigraph: "Ghosts are always hungry."
No blurbs adorn the rear dustjacket of the first edition. Instead there are the simple opening lines of the novel in a bold black font:
"What was the worst thing you've ever done?"
"I won't tell you that, but I'll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me...the most dreadful thing..."
I'm astonished by the number of people who say that they don't get this, even after reading all those later allusions to Narcissus in the novel. The speaker who answers has no empathy. His sense of responsibility is missing--either unevolved or suppressed by his self-aggrandising vanity.
But the members of the Chowder Society have reached the autumn of their lives, and their fear of death, long in denial and projected onto the other in their stories, suddenly becomes the mirror in which they can plainly see themselves. In turn, one by one, they are destroyed by their own fear of annihilation.
The entire cast of Ghost Story is excellent. Melvyn Douglas would only survive another year, dying in 1981. Fred Astaire, then eighty and only a year into his marriage to his young wife, Robyn Smith, lived well until 1987. John Houseman, two years younger than Astaire, died in 1988. Douglas Fairbanks, jr., died of a heart attack at age ninety in the year 2000. Patricia Neal (who played Astaire's wife) died in 2010.
The movie was also blessed with a great soundtrack, now an annual October feature at our house. Spooky, moody strings that seem to have a dark joy of their own. Composer Phillipe Sarde must be some kind of conjurer himself.