01 October 2011

Peter Straub's "Ghost Story"

The 2015 edition cover.
Peter Straub's  Ghost Story...we meet again, in your original, proper form this time (my first experience being the 1981 film).

There's a lot going on with this book, and I struggled to figure out what exactly I wanted to comment on. Mythology and folklore have always been appealing to me, so I wanted to latch on to Straub's use of the Narcissus motif (and loss of innocence), or the folklore of the Manitou. But, no, I'm whipping out the Keats instead.

The ghosts/evil incarnate of Ghost Story are pretty complex...they're old, ancient beings who are many forms with many names (and they're even YOU!). To be honest, I like these monsters better when they aren't given a name at all (the first time I read the phrase Manitou I deflated), but I'm honing in on the Eva Galli/Alma Mobley/ feminine wiles-spirit. In case you weren't sure what all of that encompasses, Straub dings you on the head and outright calls her La Belle Dame (Straub 214).

 La Belle Dame Sans Merci. The Beautiful Woman Without Pity. An old folkloric symbol, the gorgeous, unattainable woman who ensnares but refuses to reciprocate the love of another...the poor lover wastes away to nothing, pining for someone who does not, (will not) give true love back. This to a degree does go hand-in-hand with the Narcissus myth (Narcissus wastes away to nothing as he stares lovelorn at his reflection, which does not reciprocate. In that myth, though, he is treated with pity and changed into the narcissus flowers). But instead of the Belle Dame's victim wasting away at his own image, he wastes away beneath hers...

Although, given Straub's interpretation, the Belle Dame is actually a part of its victims anyway, so the Belle Dame's victims do waste away from the reflection of themselves, so we're back at the Narcissus myth again. I think I just blew my own mind.

But I digress. Let's throw John Keats' poem out in the open and go from there:

La Belle Dame Sans Merci. A Ballad.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel's granary is full,
And the harvest's done.

I see a lily on thy brow, 
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful--a faery's child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong she would bend, and sing
A faery's song.
She found roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said--
'I love thee true'.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulléd me asleep
And there I dreamed-- Ah! woe betide! --
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried-- 'La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!'

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapéd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill's side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Sir Frank Dicksee (1903). 
I can start with making some obvious connections to Keats' Belle Dame and Straub's Belle Dame, Eva Galli/Alma Mobley. Of course, she's beautiful. He beauty varies in its representation. Depending on whom she haunts, she can be androgynous, fox-like, cold, sensual, passive, charming, etc. And as Keats' Belle Dame is wild (verse VI) so is Straub's: " [...] 'She was wild,' Sears said. 'She was frightening'" (Straub 355).

She wanders from victim to victim, and yes, she does hypnotize them into loving her. The Chowder Society is enthralled by her in numerous incarnations, particularly Lewis and Edward. She does get engaged to both David and Don Wanderley (pretty creepy if you ask me). And all these men waste away, in one way or another, under her spell. They either completely die or diminish in their capacity (a good example is Don at his university job...his love for Alma has made him ineffective).

And I can't help but compare the Knight's vision of the Belle Dame's victims in verses X and XI to the multiple visions the characters have in Straub's story. Almost every person who has died reappears to the Belle Dame's impending victim. It's hard not to think of Keats' "pale faces" and simultaneously picture Sears, John, and Lewis behind their black veils, or Fenny and Gregory Bates, or Christina Barnes, and Stringer, and, and, and--you get the idea. Even if some of these spirits are the Belle Dame's beneficiaries, the point is, they are just as much under her spell as the other living characters are.

 La Belle Dame Sans Merci By John William Waterhouse (1893). 
Lastly, here's the connection that made me rethink my opinion of Straub and Ghost Story (for the better: at first I wasn't that impressed but I've underestimated the book to a degree): DREAMS! At first I didn't like the idea that the spirits were manifestations of the imagination, because it seemed too simple, but it fits perfectly. The Chowder Society, Don Wanderley (a novelist), the painter Mobley...these men are creators, and equally haunted. It's larger than that, though.

Straub's Belle Dame taunts Don Wanderley (as well as the reader): "We chose to live in your dreams and imaginations because only there are you interesting. [...] Could you defeat a cloud, a dream, a poem? You are at the mercy of your human imaginations, and when you look for us, you should always look in the places in your imagination. In the places of your dreams" (Straub 401).

Keats' Belle Dame works through dreams as well (Verse IX). She lulls her knight to sleep and he has the "latest dream" he ever had...aka, the last dream. He woke up on the cold hill side, but that's not really waking up. As Straub's characters would say, he's "gone over" (Straub 77).

La Belle Dame Sans Merci hasn't just haunted the characters in Ghost Story, or John Keats' knight-at-arms. An excellent real-life example would be the Pre-Raphaelites, the artists and authors of the 19th century who sought to recreate an idealized version of the Middle Ages.

 Coraline's mother as a beldam...
The Belle Dame has also cropped up in modern works as well...Neil Gaiman's Coraline for example. The "Other Mother" is referred to as a beldam (in both the book and the film, if my memory serves me). Beldam = Belle Dame! See? She haunts EVERYONE, it seems, creative people mostly, but since imagination is a part of every human being, odds are she's still lurking there too. And that's how she's a separate entity but also YOU at the same time.

 ...Kristina as a beldam.
You can be one, too. Go here!
The more I think about Straub's Ghost Story, the more connections I keep making to the idea of dreams, and the monsters we make in them. He's on to something, and it's greater than his book, and greater than anything his characters in it could picture. Though the idea of it being tied to Native American myth, or animalism/spiritualism turns me off to a degree, I do like what he's done when he links it to the Belle Dame myth.

And we can tie it back to Narcissus again anyway...don't artists fall in love with their own creations, or at least instill their own love into what they create? Aren't their creations manifestations of themselves? Aren't their creations the products of their dreams?

The more I think about it, the more I like it. Kudos, Straub.

 Keats, John. "La Belle Dame Sans Merci. A Ballad." Bright Star: Love Letters and Poems of John Keats to Fanny Brawne. New York: Penguin Group, 2009. 88-90. Print.

Straub, Peter. Ghost Story. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1979. Print.


  1. This is a great analysis I love the mythos of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" the Idea of withering away in front of someone litterally or subconciously. it almost goes back to the idea of certain smells or places reminding us of a lost loved one. and what that can do to a person who believed the mourning proccess was over for them! this was a great post Kristina always look forward to the next ones!!

  2. This was an interesting post. I like and agree with the Narcissus myth's relationship to the novel--the loss of innocence aspect, and mourning, destruction of the self; but I don't completely agree with the "La Belle Dame Sans Merci". I think Keats and Straub were talking about two completely different things, but I don't have to agree. You present a well thought out argument, and I enjoyed reading it.

  3. So far, this is the best commentary I've seen on the book.

    At the core of my opinion, I believed that Ghost Story is a really great story told from a toxic point of view, namely that a woman in control of her sexuality and refusing to be owned by a man was a monstrous threat. Recalling the original murder of Eva Galli, she was seemingly killed for offering herself wantonly to a group of immature possessive men who were shocked by her lasciviousnes. She is counterpointed by Stella Hawthorne, who is written as being sexually promiscuous, selfish, and cruel. The characters speak in essentially the same haughty and condescending voice, making the tie more apparent.

    Reading your post, I have to say that I love your connection to the Belle Dame archetype. Hell, I keep dating that archetype (Hi, Yukiko) and it's a great fit for the story. Eva Galli is definitely the genre's take on this sort of character.


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