20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
Reviewed by Graham Sleight
20 March 2006
A few pages into "Best New Horror," the first story in 20th Century Ghosts, the protagonist's wife leaves him. The protagonist's name is Eddie Carroll, and he edits an annual anthology of horror stories. He has discovered that his wife has been having an affair, and she explains that she's glad he caught her, "To have it over with." He doesn't understand what "it" is:
"The affair?" he asked, wondering if she was about to tell him that she had broken it off.
"No," Lizzie said. "I mean all your horror shit, and all those people who are always coming to see you, the horror people. Sweaty little grubs who get hard over corpses. That's the best part of this. Thinking maybe now Tracy can have a normal childhood. Thinking I'm finally going to have a life with healthy, ordinary grown-ups." (p. 13)
It's hard not to see her point. Horror is the only genre named after its desired effect, the genre of punishment for titillation: punishment, moreover, which is almost always grotesquely disproportional to the original sin. Its father, I'm certain, was Dante, burying the flatterers in shit and ripping the guts out of schismatics in his Inferno. Readers of horror are in the position outlined by Thomas Aquinas: "In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned." Modern readers may find that a morally dubious stance, but it's no different to, say, the vicarious thrill of sitting safe in the dark and watching some teen slasher flick where the jock and the cheerleader commit a crime against the laws of nature like having premarital sex, and wind up eviscerated by the local knife-wielding maniac. The one great boon that Kevin Williamson brought to the field in films like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer was to put these rules on the table in all their ridiculousness, even as he powered his narratives with them.
In written horror there are more variations, but the principle's the same. In H. P. Lovecraft, for instance, there's vastly disproportionate punishment for all, simply because humanity doesn't realise that the sum of its achievement is just scum on a tidal pool while out there the sea of the elder gods is gathering itself to wash in. To know anything in Lovecraft—to read a book telling a fraction of the truth, to venture where you shouldn't—axiomatically brings your madness and death. Or take Robert Aickman, in whose work being alive in the twentieth century is the greatest horror, and whose stories consist—we might say—of ever-increasing dread at the failure to see that. Or take Thomas Harris, whose last Hannibal Lecter novel featured the good doctor becoming a kind of bad-guy vigilante who only killed those even badder than him in ironically appropriate ways. (He even started quoting Dante just to make the point unavoidable.) We could wade out into the swamp at the bottom of the genre, to see pain and violation inflicted on characters for transgression's sake, we could even stoop so low as to mention American Psycho. But no. There are some things man was not meant to know.
On the other hand, we could take seriously Stephen King's statement that horror may be the most important form of fiction that the moral writer can command. Supposing that there are such creatures around this late in the day, what would a moral writer's horror stories look like? What would it be like to write in this tradition so rooted in schlock and degradation, but to do it as a feeling adult? (A friend of mine, who has a track record of a couple of decades in the horror field, said she decided to stop working in it when she had her first child—when she realised, as she put it, that to write about that kind of violence against people was something she wasn't prepared to play pretend over.) Joe Hill may have asked himself similar questions; certainly placing "Best New Horror" at the start of the collection seems to me as clear a statement of intent as you could wish for.
Eddie Carroll receives "Buttonboy: A Love Story" unsolicited for his annual anthology. It depicts acts of savage violence against a blameless teenage girl named Cate. Cate escapes her tormentor and tries to reconstruct her life without success. Eventually she realises that she has found her way back to the woods in which she escaped her tormentor and that she may in some senses have been there all along. Carroll, reading the story, is shocked by its extremity, but neither can he deny its power. (Nor can the reader of "Best New Horror.") He goes in search of its author, but finds him living in a world not that different from the one depicted in "Buttonboy." As he flees, he realises that he, like Cate, is trapped in the woods:
He knew his chances: not good. He knew what 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 how these stories went better than anyone, and if anyone could find his way out of these woods, it was him. (p. 28)
And the story ends. It's ambiguous whether Eddie survives, but what's not ambiguous is that his pursuit of horror has backed him into a corner. Knowing how these stories work has taken him to this dark wood, which is not a place anyone would want to be.
"Best New Horror" is untypical of most of the pieces here—in the explicitness of its horror, in the directness of its critique of the genre, and in avoiding Hill's central subject: childhood. But it is unmistakably a moral piece, whose Dante-esque symmetries of retribution need no further gloss from me.
The next story, "20th Century Ghost," is much more representative. It's a piece which could appear slight in some hands, depicting a few decades in the life of a cinema haunted by the ghost of a beautiful woman. The protagonist and his boyhood friend, "Steven Greenberg," encounter her and the allure of the movies at the same time. Decades later, the protagonist is running the cinema—named, of course, The Rosebud—and "Greenberg" is directing films starring Tom Hanks and Haley Joel Osment. Greenberg launches a fundraising drive to save The Rosebud; at its gala opening, the protagonist sits with the woman, kisses her, and passes from sight. Despite the stone-in-the-shoe annoyance of seeing "Stephen Greenberg" as his real-world equivalent while you read, the whole thing is beautifully stage-managed by Hill. In particular, his delicacy at the end of the story is quite remarkable. His first strength as a writer is his mastery of the rhetoric of endings: his ability to take what has gone before and knit it together in a few sentences without seeming like he's rigging the outcome.
When I said that Hill's central subject is childhood, I should have been more specific. His subject in most of these stories is North American suburban boyhoods of the last twenty or thirty years. The events of most of these stories take place when their narrators are between ten and eighteen; the stories are often recounted much later, with a vantage of years lending poignancy to what's being described. The dynamic between the narrator and the-rest-of-the-world is usually triangulated by an extra element—a strange friend, an unusual prop—which carries the fantastic charge of the story.
Take, for instance, "The Cape," where the protagonist's old blanket intermittently allows his childhood fantasies of flight to come true. Thankfully, Hill avoids the saccharine potential of this idea, with the later frame narrative darkening it significantly and shockingly. Or take "My Father's Mask," where family life revolves around an unusual set of playing cards. Or take "Voluntary Committal," the fine and subtle novella which closes the collection. Even more explicitly than the other stories here, it's couched as a confessional of childhood, with the adult narrator trying to explain how he and his brother were involved in the disappearance of a friend. Throughout, Hill also has the gift of specificity, of the right detail in the right place.
Or take, in particular, "Pop Art," identified by Christopher Golden in his introduction as his favourite in the collection. Its first words are, "My best friend when I was twelve was inflatable. His name was Arthur Roth, which also made him an inflatable Hebrew, although in our now-and-then talks about the afterlife, I don't remember that he took an especially Jewish perspective." (p. 51) The rest of the story proceeds logically from that point: Art is a real person, born of normal (non-inflatable) parents, and suffering from a rare genetic condition. He can't talk, but instead writes notes on a pad he keeps around his neck. He's also persecuted mercilessly by everyone but the narrator—hence the title. It's untypical for Hill in being built on a premise which is plainly whimsical; but its working-out in the story is deadly serious and very moving.
Where Hill does tend towards depicting horrific acts directly, it's usually under the cover of non-fantastic horror tropes like the serial killer. In "The Black Phone," a boy is abducted and held in a basement containing a phone which conveys messages from the killer's previous victims. Paraphrased like that, it sounds like a particularly exploitative episode of The Twilight Zone, but Hill conveys the desperation so well that one forgets such niggles. "In the Rundown" also sees violence erupting into ordinary suburban life, though perhaps less convincingly—not least because it also lets Hill indulge his sweet-tooth for baseball nostalgia. On the other hand, "Abraham's Boys" is entirely convincing, a child's-eye view of what it would be like to have Van Helsing from Dracula as a father. And "Last Breath," a vignette of life in a strange museum, shows that Hill is prepared to find children as creepy as anything else in the world. Everyone—children included—is accountable for what they do: King's dictum about horror as a moral form may still hold.
So 20th Century Ghosts is a very fine debut collection—and a deserved winner of the Crawford Award. I think that the title indicates a central concern for Hill. The events of these stories are often set irretrievably in the past, and it often feels like they are more confessed than told. The dead need no excuses from us, maybe, but we need to talk to them anyway. Some of these stories, like "Abraham's Boys" or "The Cape," end with carefully configured book-balancing; others just end when the teller runs out of story. Either way, like the twentieth century, they are behind us; closing the book is like the dull thud of earth thrown into a grave.