Peter Straub’s Ghost Story is one of the best horror novels I’ve ever read. Is this because it’s written in omniscient POV? That’s not the only reason, but it’s a primary one.
As I mentioned in Third Person Subjective Omniscient POV in Hell House, sometimes you must read for a bit before you fully discover what POV the author is using. This is true of Straub’s 1979 novel.
Discovering the book’s POV
Chapter 2 of the Prologue (3ff) presents in an opening frame a man who has abducted a young girl. Straub’s use of third person subjective (from the unnamed man’s point of view) quickly becomes apparent, but it’s not clear for some time whether the narrator is external or internal to the story. (Which is to say, we can’t tell whether the narrator is omniscient or close third.)
The narrator uses omniscient technique of filtering right off (“he thought” ). In the second scene he identifies himself as the nephew of Edward Wanderley (7). The filtering continues in chapter 3: he “wished,” “saw” (9). Straub provides a hint of external narration with “She leaned back into the seat, waiting for him to do whatever he wanted” (9)—a reason the man could not know. Straub finally names him “Don Wanderly,” an author, on pages 11–12.
Through chapter 6, Wanderley’s thoughts and actions are still being described externally: “He supposed that David…,” “The girl probably knew he was holding the knife…” (24); these surmisings stick to a limited, subjective POV, but we still don’t know whether it’s omniscient.
Part One, section I, “Milburn Observed Through Nostalgia”—a sort of prologue—introduces Ricky Hawthorne with more external description: “What he chiefly liked to observe was Milburn itself…” (28).
With the next subheading, “Frederick Hawthorne,” chapter 1, you would think the limited subjectivity would continue. But it doesn’t.
The first paragraph, after telling of Ricky’s appreciation of Sears James’ home and library, states: “But they [the Chowder Society members] felt it: each of them, Ricky Hawthorne perhaps more so than the others, had wished to possess such a place for himself” (31, emphasis mine). This first instance of head-hopping establishes the third person Straub is using as external omniscience. Yet he still pulls in close with phrases such as, “My God, thought Ricky: he can do whatever he wants…” (34).
First-person story embedded in omniscient third
Sears James is introduced in his own subheaded chapter (43ff) in this way: “…Ricky honored tradition by waiting… to ask Sears the question that had been on his mind for two weeks” (43), showing that we’re starting out in Ricky’s head and then moving to Sears’: “She irritated Sears…,” “Sears approved…” (44).
In chapter 2 under Sears’ named subheading, Straub fascinates me with his narratorial dexterity. Sears begins with a paragraph of dialogue, which, naturally is in first person. But then the author dispenses with the quotation marks and continues the first-person narration in the very next paragraph (47). Milly Sheehan interrupts the story by the end of 2; the omniscient interlude continues through chapter 3 (52–56) and contains this clearly omniscient statement: “Sears… was unaware of an event that had occurred that afternoon in town and would affect all of their lives” (52). Sears resumes his first-person story about Fenny Bate in chapter 4, returning to quoted dialogue on page 72 to end the scene.
More omniscient tactics
In a few Ricky Hawthorne chapters, the narrator describes him externally while he’s sleeping. Then, on page 82, the narrator head-hops to Stella’s POV: “When she returned nearly thirty minutes later, he was sitting up in bed looking confused. The pouches beneath his eyes were larger than usual.”
A few pages later, “While Ricky hurried into a scalding shower, Lewis Benedikt was jogging a regular two miles before making breakfast for himself…” (84).
Head-hopping continues throughout the book. Here’s a favorite passage from section II, chapter 1, that demonstrates the power of an omniscient narrator to make comments and jump in time:
The following events occurred a year and a day earlier, in the evening of the last day of their golden age. None of them knew it was their golden age, nor that it was coming to an end….(116)
In Part Two, section III, “The Town,” chapter 1, the first long paragraph does not reveal a narrator. This is omniscient, as well as these:
- We dip into Elmer Scales’s thoughts: “…come from Mary boy maybe you do…” and “He could not possibly have foreseen and understood what he would be doing with that shotgun in two months’ time” (233).
- Then into Walt Hardesty’s sour attitude: “Dr. Dope Fiend Jaffrey… Mr. Ricky-Snob-Hawthorne-With-Horns and Mr. Sears and Roebuck Snob James…” (233).
- Expositional summary: “But Don does not know, so he cannot put in his journal…” (233).
- We hop into Milly Sheehan’s head and then Don Wanderly’s on 234.
This scene is wholly of the external narrator, which Straub executes expertly.
Finally, in the climax scene, Ricky, Don, and Peter are in a tenement bedroom where Anna Mostyn disintegrates. Then, in the next paragraph, the narrator whisks us “Thirteen blocks away…” (494).
I’ve rarely experienced such narratorial complexity in any other novel. But that’s part of what makes Ghost Story great—as well as a bestseller. I hope to do as well someday.
Straub, Peter. Ghost Story. Berkley, 2020.