These are nighttime tales in dream territory. Numerous apparitions culled from films of the supernatural, tales of the unexplained, and urban legends that whisper unto themselves. It’s never easy to keep your grip in their undertow. It has been a while since I closed the book, devoured by the stories of boxes that open portals into other realms (ala Lovecraft’s “Dreams from the Witch House”), horror anthology editors getting trapped in their own horror stories, non-romance brimming from the set of a horror film, and a sensual confession about ghosts that like to discuss films. I read the book on the train, but that wasn’t much of a hindrance, since every time I read each of the stories in Joe Hill’s excellent collection 20th Century Ghosts, my entire consciousness is transplanted into other realms.
A thick and unrelenting air of dread pervades the collection. Even in some of the stories without supernatural elements, there is an unexplainable sense of horror that attaches itself to the story. Perhaps it’s this subtlety that makes the stories in 20th Century Ghosts more effective. Even the lighthearted fare of “Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead,” which is a not-so-romantic tale set during the filming of zombiemeister George Romero’s cult classic Dawn of the Dead, becomes strangely eerie.
The stories are flooded with seemingly innocuous trinkets and elements: cardboard boxes, black phones, aspirators and masks. Most of the stories unravel like a confessional, unblinkingly laced with such tenacity, trembling from the fear of these encounters. While “Pop Art“ may be riddled with the terrors of adolescence such as school bullies and nasty folks with bad parenting skills, the story at its core is an intimate story of a friendship on the borderlines of life. The narrator’s friend, Art, is inflatable, suffering from a rare genetic condition. The heavy darkness of the premise is at times penetrated by the whimsical colors of innocence harbored by these two friends, punctuated by images of crayons, invented games ,and balloons. It’s haunting but nevertheless endearing.
At the center of 20th Century Ghosts is the collision of forces, supernatural or not, during childhood. The titular story is about young kids who come across a ghost inside a theater. Hill uses cinema as a vehicle to maneuver through the various encounters these children have, and the eventual impact throughout their lives. “Abraham’s Boys“ deals with Van Helsing and the secret that he keeps from his two boys while “Last Breath“ is a strange tale about an even stranger museum of silence, where last breaths are kept for display, seen through the eyes of a child. The eerie Twilight Zone-ish “The Black Phone“ is about an abducted boy trapped in a basement where the titular phone lurks, haunted by the ghosts of other abducted children.
“The Cape” could easily fall into a trap of ludicrousness since it is about a cape that gives the character, Eric, the ability to fly. Comic book influences may be scattered here and there but Hill gives the story a strong atmosphere of disintegration and detachment. The same can be said of “You Will Hear the Locust Sing,” a disturbing Kafka-esque tale mashed up with old-school creature features and golden age science fiction fear-mongering.
Hill brings us to even stranger territory with his cataclysmic transformation of tired horror tropes into a fully fleshed monster. The collection’s opening shocker “Best New Horror“ chronicles the tale of Eddie Caroll, a professional editor of horror anthologies, who has been working on the same series for over a third of his life. His wife has abandoned him, not because he was cheating or some other vice, but precisely because of his job.“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,” his wife told him. We feel his exhaustion in reading old horror tropes, tired vampire tales, unspeakable horrors and chainsaw wielding psychos. One day, Carroll receives a story called “Buttonboy: A Love Story,” sick, misogynistic slasher porn. Carroll, elated by his discovery, goes on a search to find the elusive author, which proves to be a fatal mistake.
Strange as it is, “Best New Horror“ doubles as a critique on the genre but at the same time, it also follows the same path we were hoping it’ll tread. Hill’s execution is deftly subtle and it amazingly works, holding us to its bitter and ambiguous ending. There is a high chance that Hill might lose the reader with an ambitious story such as this. but he didn’t fail to deliver.
However, it is the novella “Voluntary Committal” that, in a very disturbing and unsettling way, emerges as the crown piece of the collection. An outright confessional of a fractured childhood, the story revolves around Nolan, his autistic brother Morris, and Nolan’s friend Eddie. Morris is unusually fixated on building vast tunnels and houses with cardboard boxes which mysteriously lead to portals to different dimensions. The story ticks like a psychological shakedown despite the carefully calculated narrative, terror lurking just beyond the borders as the story moves toward its end.
These are the characters that populate Hill’s collection: broken-down spirits haunted by the ghosts of their childhood, be they tangible or not. With today’s frenzy of blood-and-gore shockers and generic broken-limbed ghouls, not to mention the daily terrors we see in the news, it’s not easy to find genuine tales that take you to places unknown, stripped bare in the face of these invisible serpents that plague our existence. Hill’s horror stories are crafted with such familiarity, it’s troubling enough to lose yourself in his worlds.
Originally published on The Philippine Online Chronicles (Aug 2010)