Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Joe Hill - 20th Century Ghosts

Best New Horror opens with jaded horror editor Eddie Carroll reading a story from an unknown author so good that he can’t think of anything else. He hunts the author’s address down, goes for a visit, and discovers that the story’s incredible darkness is reflected in its sadistic creator…Wait, wait, I’ve read this one, haven’t I? I mean, it’s not exactly a new story, now is it? Oh, the details have changed, but the cruel artist, the disfigured bodies of his family, the isolated house in the woods, the frantic flight in the night, who isn’t familiar with these? But wait. Caroll’s read that one, too, and his is a bit different, because, after reading all the schlock, Carroll knows the tricks of survival:

He knew this forest, this darkness, this night. He knew his chances: not good. He knew that was after him. It had been after him all his life. He knew where he was – in a story about to unfold an ending. He knew better than anyone how these stories went, and if anybody could find their way out of these woods, it was him. [p. 23]

Best New Horror is, it turns out, a piece far more concerned with the horror genre as a whole than it is with telling a specific horror story. Tired and trite as it may be, even obsessed with its own capacity for cruelty, Hill nonetheless doesn’t condemn the genre, merely the uninspired and sadistic aspects of it. As to its peaks, however, Eddie Carroll doesn’t hesitate to speak:

[He] said that every fictional world was a work of fantasy, and whenever writers introduce a threat or conflict into their story, they create the possibility of horror. He had been drawn to horror fiction, he said, because it took the most basic elements of literature and pushed them to their extremes. All fiction was make-believe, which made fantasy more valid (and honest) than realism. [p. 14]

Hill is not a god sitting on his mountain and judging horror. He is, armed with his vision of everything that horror can accomplish, down in the trenches. Best New Horror is a meta statement about all horror, yes, but I was lying earlier when I implied that it wasn’t also a story. It’s Hill’s mastery of the form, his ability to hit all the right notes and make the reader sit bolt upright as they read the wholly expected encounter between fictional author and jaded, reader-surrogate editor. The story shown within the story as the canonical example of revolutionary, but morally bankrupt, horror is not a strawman, not a meritless sadist’s torture fantasy. The story-within-a-story of Buttonboy is its own tale, and, though we may be alienated by its perversity, we are at the same time drawn into its darkness, as only the best horror can manage.

20th Century Ghosts is not a polemic thinly veiled as a shot story collection, and, after Best New Horror, we turn away from the metafictional and toward the simple reality of an excellent horror story well told. At all moments, however, Hill remains fully conscious of our expectations and stubbornly refuses to fall into cliché. This behind the scenes bond between author and reader – this, we’ve both been here before, haven’t we? – leads to some of the collection’s biggest successes, both large and small.

Promising to be yet another self aware analysis of our entertainment, Pop Art’s title turns out to be a clever pun. Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead gives us the promised zombie apocalypse – it just happens to be costumed zombies on the set of a George Romero picture, and the return from the dead happens to be an emotional, rather than a physical, one. In the same vein, stories, such as The Widow’s Breakfast, take our expectations of darkness and use them to surprise us with moments of beautiful kindness.

Which isn’t to imply that all of Hill’s tools are ironic tricks to distance himself from the genre. Abraham’s Boys is the opposite, beginning with the rather unusual set up of Van Helsing’s children waiting for their father to return, before moving toward what seems like the expected scene of enlightenment, reunion, etc. But no, that is not to be. Instead, the story’s ending plunges us further into darkness, forcing us to reanalyze every event within it.

The supernatural is the catalyst for many of the events in 20th Century Ghosts, but it is never the core of the story. Character drives almost every one of these pieces, from the optimistic to the crushing, and it is from the human element that the mainstay of the collection’s darkness originates. The Cape, for instance, focuses on a man whose apathy and depression are broken by the discovery of a magical cape that allows him to fly. Where the story becomes remarkable, however, is where the man’s insecurities poison the ability he’s received, and where the horribly human center of the tale turns from man to monster. The Black Phone is similar in many ways, portraying the supernatural as the only means of escape from the horrible realities of the world. In the Rundown, on the other hand, is perhaps the most unsettling story of the collection, despite its complete lack of otherworldly elements.

Everything is not rosy (or should that be polluted?) in 20th Century Ghosts. The story You Will Hear the Locusts Sing, for instance, fails to maintain its momentum for its whole length. The story opens with:

Francis Key woke from dreams that were not uneasy, but exultant, and found himself an insect. He was not surprised, had thought this might happen. Or not thought: hoped, fantasized, and if not for this precise thing, then something like it. [p. 69]

The opening portions of the tale are excellent in a bizarre way, as Francis experiments with and learns to control his new body. As the tale progresses, and Francis moves from a conviction of his own alienation to a need for revenge, however, the urgent drive that sent us tearing through the early pages lets up a bit, just as the opposite should be happening. There’s no weak part of the story, and nothing in there that’s blatantly nonessential, but the tale feels overlong nonetheless. Along the same lines, Better than Home is a great character sketch that never seems to go anywhere and, as a result, never really justifies its length.

Pop Art is the opposite. This story is so good that, were everything else in the collection overwritten rubbish, I would still say that this was a mandatory purchase. Pop Art is the tale of two boys’ friendship. It is also a tale of vulnerability, and love, and escape, and loss, and if there is one false note in the story, I haven’t found it. This is a story that sounds weird and faintly ridiculous, and yet it is a story that, I am fairly confident, will break your heart. If you are going to read one short story in your life, give some serious thought to this one.

It should have been easy for Joe Hill. He is, after all, Stephen King’s son. Should he have wanted to, there couldn’t have been much in between him and a long string of lucrative, insipid novels under the name Joe King, packed right next to his father’s own lackluster later works. Instead, we’ve gotten a short story collection that questions the worth of its genre and seems to come from a total unknown. If Hill wasn’t so talented, I’d say that wasn’t the best of business plans. Hill is that good, however, and I think his work should go right next to King’s golden era. Not because they’re family, but because Hill is just that good.

Standouts: Pop Art, Best New Horror, In the Rundown, My Father's Mask, Abraham's Boys

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