I cannot recall when I first saw it, but I have been a longtime fan of the 1981 film adaptation of Peter Straub’s 1979 novel, “Ghost Story”. Despite my enthusiasm for the film, however, I never read the novel; so one day I decided to fix this by picking up a copy of the mass-market paperback and, much to my chagrin, I hated it! Mostly, this was because it seemed to be nothing like the movie that I knew and loved so well. I read about half of it, then sold my copy out of frustration. Over the next year or so, I read articles praising the book and spoke to friends who swore that if I gave it another chance I would like it. What sold me, however, was reading Stephen King’s take on the novel in “Danse Macabre”, his renowned treatise on the Horror genre, where he praises it as being “the best of the supernatural novels to be published in the wake of the three books that kicked off a new horror “wave” in the seventies—those three, of course, being Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Other.” [Stephen King “Danse Macabre” Berkley 1983 pg 253]
As luck would have it, I was able to procure a discard of the paperback from the bookstore where I work, so I didn’t have to purchase it again. This time I tried to read the story without expectations and accept it as a separate entity from its film adaptation. Approaching it in this manner allowed me to take in the myriad threads of the novel’s multi-layered plotline. I then saw how everything fit in, including the Bate brothers who are much more significant and menacing the novel than their on-screen counterparts. But I am getting ahead of myself here…
The film features the delectable Alice Krige as the enigmatic Eva Galli / Alma Mobley character, along with a host of aged stars from the early days of Hollywood, including Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman and Melvyn Douglas, a/k/a the “Chowder Society”, a group of childhood friends from Millburn, New York (in the film, it is in Connecticut), who encountered the young and gorgeous Eva Galli when they were just coming into the world as innocent young men and were completely taken by her beauty and her bohemian way
They follow her around like puppy dogs, hanging on her every word and treating her like a goddess until she falls off their pedestal in an awkward confrontation during one of their evening soirées at her house where they accidentally knock her down and believe they’ve killed her. Fearing the scandal would ruin their promising career prospects, they place her body in a car which they sink into a lake. As the car is sinking, however, they see her look through the rear window just as it is too far gone to do anything about it and are traumatized. Thus the Chowder Society is born; it is an exclusive club that gathers monthly, always in evening dress, to tell one another ghost stories as a coping mechanism to allay the guilt and personal horror from what they did. The film’s use of the aging stars helps to add a bit of pathos for the characters who are not entirely sympathetic, as they are all beloved actors who were major stars back in their halcyon days, much like the Chowder Society in Milburn.
The film presents the story as a tale of vengeance from beyond the grave. Krige’s “ghost” comes back after 60 plus years to haunt and hunt down the now-aged members of the Chowder Society to mete out justice on the men who “killed” her so many years before. She comes back under the assumed name of Alma Mobley and begins by seducing the sons of one of the men, Edward Wanderly (presented as their uncle in the film and played by Fairbanks). She sweeps Edward’s son Don, an ambitious author with a successful novel under his belt, off of his feet at his job at Berkeley University, causing him to neglect his duties there and basically ruins his reputation. However, after a whirlwind romance replete with talk of marriage, she leaves him once he begins to sense that something is not right with her. She then seeks out his more materialistic brother David and ends up causing him to fall from a window to his death before disappearing again, only to reappear in Millburn to prey on the old men themselves.
After the death of Ed Wanderly, the Chowder Society decide to write his son Don on the basis that he might be able to help them because of his seeming knowledge of the occult gleaned from some of the supernatural themes in his last novel. He agrees to help and with the aid of Peter Barnes, a teenage boy (completely omitted in the film adaptation), take on the spirit of Alma Mobley.
The film has Alma / Eva slowly picking off the men one by one, usually appearing as a water-logged corpse which scares her victims into accidents and heart attacks, but in the book, she never died that way in the first place. Rather, it is revealed that she is a shape-shifter and that she walked away from the sinking car unnoticed by the men who watched it so closely they did not notice a lemur slinking away on the other side of the shoreline. In fact, it is implied that what people are seeing when they freak out is not a ghost so much as a gorgeous woman changing into various animals and creatures. In the book, there are several mentions of the concept of the Manitou, but upon personal investigation, I did not see a correlation between the Native American belief and Straub’s monster other than the shape-shifting. If anything, Eva Galli reminds me more of a Japanese vengeance ghost, like the Onryo, rather than the Manitou.
The movie has some weak spots like the omission of major characters, like Peter and the total mishandling of Fenny and Gregory Bate. In the movie, they are two escaped loonies who team up with Alma Mobley and become her henchmen. In the book, they are shape-shifting revenants whom have given up their souls to do her bidding in return for a conditional immortality. Their tale is but one of the multiple ghost stories told throughout the course of the novel.
The novel has some issues as well, like Alma Mobley’s god-like super powers which are a bit of a stretch, even for fantasy. Aside from her ability to shape-shift and reincarnate, she also has the ability to alter perception where her intended victim may believe themselves to be in a completely alternate reality. I found this part of the story to be distracting because it was too farfetched for me to accept within the confines of this particular tale.
“Ghost Story” reads a bit like Stephen King’s “’Salem’s Lot” in the sense that slowly but surely, people are being killed and brought back as zombie-like followers of the central villain, Alma Mobley. In fact, the scene where Peter is being called to his bedroom window by the revenants of his mother and various townsfolk who are outside in the snow, calling for him to come and join their ranks, brings to mind the analogous scenes in King’s novel where newly turned vampires tried to persuade their former loved ones to let them into their homes so they could recruit them for the undead ranks of Kurt Barlow.
In the end, in light of having finally read the complexity of the original storyline I must admit that the film over-simplifies the plot and does not do justice to its grandiose themes. On the other hand, maybe the book was too convoluted to work as a 2 hour film. Just the same, I like both the movie and (now) the book for their respective attributes and thrills. I think what makes the film still so special for me is Alice Krige in her portrayal of Eva Galli / Alma Mobley; her beauty and charisma really make it believable that so many men would fall prey to her charms and she also has a bit of the aloof otherworldliness that makes her a little frightening when the story calls for it.
I recommend both for anyone who is curious and wants to see a film or read a novel that treats the ghost story in an intelligent and imaginative manner.