20th Century Ghosts
By Joe Hill
PS Publishing, 2005
Joe Hill’s debut collection is one of those books that comes with Hype. For starters, 20th Century Ghosts has had one of the largest and most reasonably priced print runs PS Publishing has put out so far: 1,000 copies of a £15 trade paperback, over and above the hardback and slipcased editions. That speaks to Pete Crowther’s confidence in the book. And since the collection was launched at last year’s World Fantasy Convention, there has been no shortage of people lining up to praise its contents. Jonathan Strahan picked it as one of the best collections of 2005. Ellen Datlow has said it “may be the most important horror debut since Glen Hirshberg”which, to be fair, only makes it the most important debut since 2002, but coming from an editor of Datlow’s caliber it’s not an insignificant statement. Moreover, the phrase “even if you don’t read horror, you should read this,” or similar, has cropped up in a couple of reviews—and I hate to say it myself, since it’s a terrible cliché, but it’s true. I don’t read horror, and I think you should read Joe Hill.
And when you do, if you’re anything like me you will probably find yourself wondering about why you don’t read horror—or if you prefer, dark fantasy. Horror seems to be the neglected child among the genres of the fantastic; whenever I marvel at how otherwise intelligent and reasonable people can exhibit a knee-jerk distaste for science fiction, I only have to stop and think about my own reaction to horror to understand them. Because horror, of course, is lurid. It is unashamedly manipulative (after all, it’s a genre dedicated to producing a particular emotional response). It is crass. It is … you get the idea. Despite the fact that for eighteen years it’s been in the same year’s best as fantasy, it seems that plenty of people who otherwise read SF and fantasy indiscriminately will avoid horror on the basis of their preconceptions. Joe Hill’s work doesn’t put the lie to those preconceptions, but it does two important things to put them in perspective. One, it demonstrates how the conventions can be made to work; and two, it demonstrates how they are not the whole story.
Enough preamble: let’s talk specifics. The collection proper, once you have read through the introduction and the acknowledgements (you may want to save the introduction until you’ve read the stories, but don’t skip the acknowledgements), begins with “Best New Horror.” Eddie Carroll is the editor of America’s Best New Horror, and has been for sixteen years. Perhaps not surprisingly, he’s a little jaded; not by the form itself—that, he still believes in—but by the great swathes of mediocrity filling most of the market. So when he receives a story that grips him from start to finish, it’s a cause for celebration. The story in question, “Buttonboy: a love story,” was first published in a small-circulation literary journal, and caused a stir, up to and including the firing of the editor who published it; partly, no doubt, because of its violent and nasty tone and partly, Carroll suspects, because literary snobs don’t like surprising endings. He decides he has to have it for the next Best New Horror, but tracking down the author proves more challenging than he expected.
You know how it goes from here, right? So does Joe Hill. (So does Eddie Carroll, who ends up explaining his version of horror on a panel at a convention.) As Christopher Golden points out when discussing the story in his introduction, “Best New Horror” is a basically conventional horror story that cannot succeed without a baseline jaded expectancy on the part of the reader. It relies on your knowingness to pull you in on an intellectual level, and then gradually drags you in further until you’re invested in the situation in a more visceral way. It is, perhaps, a necessary interrogation of the conventions of horror, because it allows you to approach the rest of the collection with a certain level of trust.
The trust is not misplaced, because the next two stories are probably the finest in the collection. ’”20th Century Ghost” is the first, but not the only, story in the book to mine the ambience of the shared setting that small-town America has become. It is a deeply nostalgic story about a legendary ghost at a local cinema, the Rosebud; a love of film runs through it like letters through rock. Imogene Gilchrist died during a showing of The Wizard of Oz but isn’t going to let that keep her from watching films, and every now and then she will appear next to someone to enthuse about whatever happens to be showing. Either she only appears to film nuts, or she sets the courses of the lives she touches, because most everyone who sees her ends up connected with the film industry in some way. When the Rosebud faces closure, it’s the web of connections that’s grown between those who have seen Imogene that the owner, Alec Sheldon, taps into, without even quite realizing what he’s doing. The story captures the magic of the silver screen, not least through some brilliant descriptions of Fantasia, and it does so with a heartfelt sentiment that never becomes cloying, and builds to a climax of melancholy romance.
If “20th Century Ghost,” like many ghost stories, is about trying to find someone who’s lost, “Pop Art” is about the process of losing. It tells the story of Arthur (Art) Roth, the narrator’s best friend and the only inflatable boy in the neighborhood. That’s right: Art is made of plastic and filled with air. It’s a ludicrous premise, and seems the more so because the previous stories used far more traditional horror tropes, but it works beautifully. The friendship between the two boys is developed with a deft awareness of how teenagers interact, while never letting us forget Art’s condition. It is the fantastic made everyday, while avoiding metaphorical commitment, and it creates an intimacy that makes you scared for the generous, introspective boy that Art has to be. We should know that Art cannot live: all it will take is a sharp branch, or a cat’s claws and, well, that will be that. And Art knows it, too, since death and the afterlife are often on his mind. But we disbelieve it, because Art’s life is hard enough. To use hope as a tool of disquiet is a ruthless trick indeed.
After the opening trio, the collection settles down a little, and becomes something more like what we thought we’d signed up for. Hill rattles through his reference points. In “You Will Hear The Locust Sing,” it’s not Gregor Samsa who wakes up as a giant cockroach, but a boy raised on the nuclear paranoia of B-movies like The Fly and Them!, and who sees the change as much as an opportunity as a curse. The costs of the transformation are not overlooked—it is made very plain that the boy, Francis, is no longer human, and that his human instincts are subsiding—but where Kafka’s outsider was crushed by his alienation, Hill’s is energized by it. The story is driven by anger. A comparable riff can be found in “Abraham’s Boys,” from which the fantastic is entirely absent, but in which it is made quite clear that the titular Abraham is the Van Helsing, having moved to the New World. His boys, Max and Rudy, from whose point of view the story is told, aren’t allowed out after dark. We have reason to believe this is a sensible precaution, but they are understandably skeptical; the story is about how sons challenge the authority of their fathers, and about how wrong fathers can be when they’re trying to protect their sons. Like “You Will Hear The Locust Sing,” it is not a sophisticated emotional arc, but it undeniably works.
There’s no fantasy in “Better Than Home,” either, even external to the main story; and the only horror is the horror of exclusion. Homer is a kid with problems. When he gets caught up in something, or tense, or nervous, he drools. The noise of tin foil being scrunched, or the sound of a VCR rewinding, sets him on edge. Gradually, we realize that his current life is not sustainable; escape is possible, for a little while, but in the end he doesn’t fit in (or, we suspect, is not allowed to fit in). A similar character study is to be found in “In The Rundown,” this time of Wyatt, a video-store clerk with dyslexia and a foul mouth. A violent encounter in a park is the present-day lynchpin for a gradual reminiscence about how Wyatt ended up where he is now. These stories, with two others, “The Saved” and “The Widow’s Breakfast,” are among the more introspective in the book. They reflect the cruelty of the world; and as you may have realized by now (as Hill puts it in an afterword), like most of the other stories in the book they are about the trouble men make for themselves.
A large number of Hill’s protagonists are teenage boys, trying to come to grips with the world. Rarely do they succeed. Often the deck is stacked heavily against them; if they are not explicitly handicapped like Homer, they often seem, at the very least, desperately insecure. But in most cases, we want them to find their way out of the hole they’re in; we want them to rise to the challenges that face them. Like “You Will Hear The Locust Sing,” “The Cape” takes a familiar idea—in this case, a cape from a childhood costume that allows the wearer to fly—and gives it to a regular guy. At least, Eric seems regular enough. He’s not too bright, not too malicious; not too much of anything, really. There are hints that he dreams, and hints that he is unstable, and it’s hard to get enough of a read on Hill’s intentions to guess which way Eric will fall until the end of the story actually happens. More traditional is “The Black Phone,” a story that demonstrates Hill doesn’t reinvent the wheel when he doesn’t have to. John Finney is abducted by a grotesquely fat man called Al, locked in a cellar and kept there for days without food or water. It is also a story you’ve read before, and it stands or falls with its atmosphere: a tense, claustrophobic closeness. As it is, when John receives a call on the black phone—the old-fashioned one, with a dial, that’s not connected to the wall—we don’t know whether what he hears is an auditory hallucination, or a genuinely supernatural message. Interestingly, at the back of the book is a ‘deleted scene’ for this story. When originally preparing it for publication, Hill lopped off the last couple of thousand words wholesale. I think the story is better with the epilogue; it means that instead of a standard ending of triumph over horror, we see an examination of the consequences of that horror. “Last Breath” is a classic dramatization of an idea, in this case a museum of silence, full of the captured last breaths of notable and obscure people. It has little plot, but an excess of atmosphere. “Dead-Wood” is even more of a sketch, but an evocative one about the ghosts of trees. By contrast, “My Father’s Mask”—which Datlow has taken for her next Year’s Best—is probably the least traditional, most surreal story in the book. In some ways it recalls Kelly Link’s more disquieting stories, with a sense that reality is perhaps just too far off course to wrench back to normality, and an ending that we are almost glad un-tells the story, even if we aren’t sure why.
Last is the longest story in the collection, Voluntary Committal, a novella that is striking in its execution but frustrating in its content [See the IROSF review—ed.]. Nolan is another averagely screwed-up guy with a story to tell. The story is about his school friendship with Eddie Prior. It is the friendship of bullies; they first bond over stealing another’s homework. Nolan is reluctant, but led increasingly astray by Eddie, and comes up against his personal moral limits only when they cause a serious accident by dropping bricks off a bridge onto traffic below. Eddie, however, is terrified of being sent to juvenile detention like his older brother was, and refuses to let Nolan say anything. To the rescue is Nolan’s younger brother, Morris, another character with schizophrenia, or Asperger’s syndrome, or some other condition, or a mix, and a boy with a penchant for building great, labyrinthine fortresses out of cardboard boxes. The more impressive the forts, the more powerful they seem to become; eventually, it seems, they become passages to elsewhere, routes of escape. It is skillfully paced, and shows Hill is adept at longer forms of fiction, but I admit to a slight disappointment on finding another story where mental illness of some stripe is connected to magical talent. It’s not just Hill—perhaps it’s just been the year for them—but at the very least it seems lazy, and somehow, almost dishonest.
But this is a relatively minor caveat. More problematic is the feeling that only in about half the stories is Hill really pushing himself; stories like “Abraham’s Boys” and “The Black Phone” are good, but they don’t come alive in the way that, say, “Pop Art” and “My Father’s Mask” do. Even so, however, and hype aside, 20th Century Ghosts is clearly a notable debut. Hill’s flair for the vivid and disturbing at short lengths recalls Michael Marshall Smith’s collection of stories, What You Make It, although with less emphasis on wit, and more nuanced characterization. What truly makes these stories, however, and the reason you should read them, is a quality that Eddie Carroll comments on when reading “Buttonboy”: they are about “the bread of everyday life” (12). They are not just about the moment of horror, they are about what leads up to it, and sometimes what comes after it. They take their time. Perhaps that’s why, although this is a dark collection, and a disconcerting one, it is not depressing: Joe Hill helps us to understand. Especially when we don’t want to.