Thursday, June 24, 2010

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

Recently, the AV Club did an article about whether or not we are living in a golden age of movies and pop culture entertainment. While I couldn't hack my way through - AV articles can be really pretentious and boring - it did get me to thinking about the way I view genre history. I tend to wax nostalgic about a mythical yesteryear when movies weren't all about the stupid jump scare, when everything didn't feel watered down and played out. The thing is, maybe that's true of any age. Maybe the stuff that is actually worth remembering is always surrounded by mediocrity. Maybe it's the process of casting the wide net through the sea of bullshit and Platinum Dunes remakes that leads us to the things that are genuinely good.

Or, to put it mildly, I think Joe Hill is the real deal.

Maybe I'm such a big Joe Hill fanboy because the characters and subjects he writes about resonates with my own life experience, in the same way melodramatic angsty music resonates with a moody teenager. Maybe I'm trying to apply an objective standard of "good" to highly subjective things. Whatever. I've gone through three of his books and he ain't let me down.

20th Century Ghosts is an anthology of horror-themed stories. Though there are ghosts and monsters aplenty, the stories tend to be about the spectres of memory and loss. Hill does something I wish more authors would do; he tells stories that use horror tropes as a grounding for tales of people rather than drag us through the same rusty haunted house doors. He's got a great command of characters, he uses language beautifully, he doesn't think endless swearing makes a story more tough and authentic (not that I have a problem with swearing. I swear like a sailor. But bad writers often rely on it to make a story more "edgy", like 10 year olds cussing out their parent's earshot. Mine cussed around me, so it was all good) and, unlike certain other major horror writers, he can actually end a story.

Anyway, that's enough of lighting incense at his feet. When I review anthologies I like going through the stories. It's a pattern that has worked well in the past and I don't see a reason not to try to duplicate success. Without further ado:

Best New Horror: I had this idea once. I really, really did. But I chickened out because I didn't think I could pull it off. Honestly, I was probably right, but Hill definitely did a hell of a job on it.

BNH is one of the most dead-on depictions of horror fandom and the fatigue that often comes with it. You love this stuff with a primal ferocity and then one day you realize that most everything out there is either a rip-off of something better or it thinks you're a fool. The protagonist, a burned out anthology editor, comes across a genuinely original and scary work and it shocks him out of his ennui. He recalls the first time he ever felt the joy of the horror genre after watching The Haunting as a small boy:

When the lights finally came up, his nerve endings were ringing, as if he had for a moment grabbed a copper wire with live current in it. It was a sensation for which he had developed a compulsion.

Boom. Nailed it.

It turns out that the guy who wrote the story is a bit messed up and BNH quickly degenerates into a nasty backwoods stalker story. But the story takes it's most celebratory tone when things are at their worst. The protagonist has finally gotten the purest jolt he'd been searching for his entire life. This story should be compulsory reading for the hardcore horror devotee.

20th Century Ghost: A lot of horror writers tell stories about haunted movie theaters, whether it's Clive Barker's seminal Son Of Celluloid or Joe R. Lansdale's trippy Drive-In novels. Most of us horror fanatics developed our taste of the genre in darkened movie palaces and it's natural that haunted movie theaters are just as much a trope of the genre as spooky castles, abandoned graveyards, and eerie summer camps.

Despite the story's scary elements- and the ghost of poor Imogene Gilchrist is genuinely unnerving- the story is really a love story. It's strangely nostalgic and sentimental, maybe a little adorably schmaltzy, but I loved it. It's one of the two stories that I remember most fondly in the collection.

Pop Art: I'm not sure if I'd mentioned this before, but Joe R. Lansdale is one of my heroes as a writer. I read his stuff at a key point in my development and his unique combination of Southern dry wit, machismo, and absolutely insane subject matter got me hooked. I have a natural inclination toward literary pretentiousness and whenever I start writing to impress people rather than writing for the sheer joy of it, I crack open a Lansdale book and marvel at the almost childlike imagination and enthusiasm of it.

Pop Art felt like a Joe R. Lansdale story.

The story is about a boy made out of inflatable plastic and the troubled, angry kid he befriends. It reminded me of a Lansdale piece about an inflatable sex doll that yearns to be free, but Pop Art has its own thing going. The inflatable boy is serene and almost Christlike in the way he views the world and the difficulties of his condition. His positivity and his unconditional love go a long way to healing the narrator.

I read a lot and, God help me, I read a tremendous amount of genre fiction. In most genre fiction, the first person narrative almost always sounds the same: cynical, detached, tough, and cold. Speaking as a long-time roleplayer, I know when someone's creating an avatar for the way they either perceive themselves or the way they want to be and most first person narratives sound vaguely like wish fulfillment. Both this story and the tales "Voluntary Committal" and "Better Than Home" deal with a narrator with emotional problems. They're not dry, detached reporters of events surrounding them, but instead they perceive the tales through the lenses of their own world view. The kid in Pop Art is angry and defensive and the inflatable boy's presence in his life does him a world of good. It's ultimately not a happy story, but it's one of the most emotionally engaging in the book.

You Will Hear The Locust Sing: This really odd mash up of Lansdale-style weirdness, fifties sci-fi big bug horror and Kafka's Metamorphosis is just...odd. I can't quite tell if it's a story that didn't so well for me or if it's doing something I'd need an English degree to figure out, but ultimately it didn't rock my cage too much. It ultimately confined me to an experience I wasn't all that interested with in the first place. Not that it was bad. It's like Korean food; it's really well made for what it is, but it's never gonna be the first thing I want to order on the menu.

Abraham's Boys: Oh, did I love this story.

I'm so sick and goddamn tired of the Dracula story. It's interesting up until we leave his bitchin' castle, then all the movies/stories/whatever degenerate into the characters wringing their hands and watching Lucy die. Even when people screw with the narrative like they did with Hammer's Horror of Dracula, it all still seems too familiar. While I still basically like vampires and I still adore the character of Dracula, stories based around the actual novel don't really do anything for me. I gave up hope on anything interesting being done with Jonathan Harker, Mina, Van Helsing, Lucy, and the rest of the gang. Boy was I wrong.

Abraham's Boys is a vampire story without any vampires in it. Van Helsing has immigrated to America, where he's been cast out of academia for his crackpot beliefs in vampires. He now lives in isolation with his two terrified boys, whom he rules with physical abuse and tales of supernatural forces set against them. We discover that Van Helsing married Mina, who died under terrible circumstances, and the boys begin to doubt their father's sanity.

This interpretation of Van Helsing, while significantly less heroic, totally works. He's a scary, paranoid, cold father figure and there's a real chance that he may simply be crazy. We feel bad for the boys, and their slow rebellion has horrible consequences, but it's the best Dracula story I've read in a long time.

Better Than Home: Probably the best character study in the book, this completely non-horror tale is told from the point of view of a special needs child and his relationship to his baseball coach father.

It's really hard to pull off a narrator with severe mental issues, especially when that narrator is a kid. The best example I've ever seen is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but author Mark Haddon had worked extensively with autistic children before writing the book. Most writers either slip into that cynical outsider perspective or, to use the distasteful terminology of Tropic Thunder, go "full retard" and make the story unreadable. Hill leaned toward the former and the narrator is a little too on-the-ball for how severe his disability is, but the relationship he has with his wonderfully patient father is one of the strongest emotional moments in the anthology.

The Black Phone: This story felt like a throwback to all those trapped-by-a-serial-killer stories I used to read in Cemetery Dance after Silence of the Lambs blew up. The protagonist is a kid (and I'm just starting to realize, what's up with all these kids and teens in Hill's work?) who gets captured by a grotesquely obese sexual predator and kept in a basement. While he's trying to figure out a way out of his predicament, a black plastic phone starts ringing. On the other end of the line are the voices of the man's previous victims.


I really liked this story. The lead kid was tremendously scrappy, proactive, and resourceful and you were rooting for him through the whole thing. It's a very direct sort of story: stuff happens, followed by other stuff, then boom! done, but it's got creepy ghosts, dank murder holes, and gross hatchet wielding, fratricidal killers. Win.

In The Rundown: Hill has an amazing ability to make completely angry, unsympathetic characters redeemable, and his gifts really shine in this story. The lead character is a nasty jerk who gets fired from working in a video store after making threatening comments to a coworker. On his way home, he comes across a grisly scene of a crazed mom trying to kill her kids and rises to the moment.

I liked this piece because of the way it shifts our perspective on the lead. He's an absolutely mean-spirited shit but he comes through in the end. The scenes with the crazed mother is genuinely chilling because it unspools so slowly. We only get information on what's going on in small pieces, so we're as off-balance and disoriented as the protagonist. It's a great effect. In The Rundown is less of a whole story than the portrayal of a single moment, so we don't quite know how things worked out, but it's a great little horror tale.

The Cape: I grew up on Ray Bradbury. When I was a kid, I loved his imagination, his nostalgia, and the poetic way he told his stories. Though he's since disowned it, The October Game is still one of the most terrifying and grisly stories in all horror fiction. As I've gotten older and ornerier, I've had a hard time connecting to his sentimental, syrupy stuff, but the Ray Bradbury story has become like 80s video game music to me: even if I haven't heard it for a long time, just a few notes brings back a tidal wave of memories and emotions.

The Cape starts out feeling exactly like a Ray Bradbury story. It's about a couple of brothers who spent their childhood tying fake capes around their necks and pretending to be superheroes. As the story begins, one of the brothers is starting to outgrow the game, but his sibling tries to get him to play one more time. He climbs up the tree, taunting the brother, and discovers that his cape gives him the ability to fly.

At that point, I expected the story to turn into a nostalgic childhood tale of whimsey and magic but shit rapidly goes downhill. Stuff happens, people become awful, and lives don't turn out exactly the way the characters want them to before someone goes and does something horrible. It was kinda hard to really like the story because there aren't really any sympathetic or likable characters, but it does play to one of Hill's strengths, which is an honest depiction of the small ways that people and families disintegrate. It's a well-told tale and it showcases some of the things I really love about Hill's work, but it's not something I'm going to be rushing back to any time soon.

Last Breath: The other stand out horror tale in this anthology, Last Breath is a tale about a very polite, very creepy doctor who collects the final exhalations of people at the moment of their death. He bottles them up and displays them in a museum, where people can listen to the sounds with a device called a deathoscope. A family of three visits the museum. The father and child are enraptured by the exhibit, but the mother becomes more and more uncomfortable. Things happen.

I loved the creepy but kindly Dr. Alinger. As a guy who is fascinated by tale spinners and crypt keepers, I love weirdo morbid eccentrics. The way he describes his collection is chilling and evocative. The little tales he tells with each death are amazing and eerie. I think I want to be this guy. It's a fairly straightforward EC comics sort of tale, but it's one of my favorites.

Dead-Wood: A one-page poetical rumination on the ghosts of trees, good. Look, just read the fucking thing. It's a page.

The Widow's Breakfast: Another really good non-horror story, The Widow's Breakfast is a Depression-era story of a drifter who shares a meal with a recently-widowed young woman. It's a great character piece, kinda sad and kinda touching.

We meet the drifter right after his more intelligent friend is killed and he's feeling vulnerable and lonely. I like that he keeps comparing the way he does things to the way his friend did them. He probably wasn't the brains of the outfit, but he's also trapped in tremendous insecurity, which makes him more sweet. Everyone is so sad and lonely and goddamn likable.

It also has the most chilling final line I've ever read in a non-horror story.

Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead: This tale was featured in The Living Dead, an anthology I reviewed awhile back. It's cropped up in pretty much every zombie anthology I've seen since then. My original notes still stand.

My Father's Mask: This is a damn weird story. It's somewhat Alice In Wonderland, somewhat straight horror and all weird. Stories with kids who have weird parents are a dime a dozen, but these cats were really, really weird, especially the sexy mom. It was a very cool piece, though. I think the point was that adult problems go straight over children's head and all they can do is get knocked around in the ripple effect. Still, the mom is pretty damn hot.

Voluntary Committal: The novella that closes the anthology, Voluntary Committal tells the story of a young man whose idiot savant brother creates elaborate forts in the basement of the family house with sheets and cardboard boxes. The forts become more frighteningly elaborate until people go in and never come out...

This story could have been a lot shorter. There's a certain kind of horror author that would have fixated on the creepy shit going on in the basement, but Voluntary Committal, like Better Than Home is mostly about the effect disabled kids have on a family. The family is brilliantly realized and I especially liked the fact that the narrator's mother recognized the mean streak in her healthier son and did her best to suppress it. I liked that the "evil" friend of the narrator wasn't really one of those generic effed-up generic horror sociopath. Instead, he had all the squirrelly, needy defense mechanisms of a kid from an abusive home. I actually felt a little bad for him when his fate came down, and I felt especially bad for the sad, insecure girl he left behind.

As for the horror, it's a pretty Lovecraftian piece, all weird angles and plateaus of Leng. I love that stuff. Voluntary Committal is ultimately a compelling family drama with just enough nastiness thrown in.

20th Century Ghosts sticks to a lot of repeating themes in Hill's work; screwed-up families, emotionally troubled narrators, and horror as a lens to view the troubles of real life. It's a very good anthology with a broad range of styles and subjects, and a couple of stories are among the best I've read. Go check it out.

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