Sunday, July 22, 2007

Forgotten but not gone

Safely arrived in Boston.

I read Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts on the trip up. I'm always fascinated by the writing of writers' children. Even had I not known he was Stephen King's son, I would know at least one of his parents was a writer. His work just has that vibe about it, a blend of youthful rawness and decades of training that you only get when you start learning very, very young. It's something I try to erase from my own writing but don't really mind in others', as long as there's sufficient talent to balance out the overabundance of knowledge. Hill has talent and to spare.

Someone clearly told him "Start strong, end long", which he did, and it more or less worked. The first two stories, "Best New Horror" and "20th Century Ghosts", actually knocked the wind out of me. It's been a long time since writing left me breathless that way. Then there were a bunch of other stories, which failed to have quite the same impact, and then the final novella, "Voluntary Committal", which reminded me a great deal of Jeffrey Ford's "Botch Town", not least because 20th Century Ghosts (hereafter 20CG) tugs on many of the same heartstrings as The Empire of Ice Cream. Ford has a broader range and takes more chances; he's a fantasist who explores every nook and cranny of what that means, while Hill is a horror writer who takes occasional weekend trips to other genres. I was surprised to note a few stories in 20CG that had no fantastical component to them at all. I thought the ones that did were more successful, but Hill clearly has room to spread his wings in many different directions if he wants to. I don't get the sense that he wants to, just yet. That's the other thing that writers' children tend to have: a sense of the arc of a writer's career, an arc that often itself resembles a three-act story. Hill knows he's on the first few pages of his own arc, and he's content to be there, establishing context for himself. I hope he has as much time as he thinks he does. It will be interesting to see what his writing is like, decades down the road.

The title of 20CG is taken from a story about ghosts at the movies--Hill just loves the punning titles, sometimes to excess, as with "Pop Art", which is about an inflatable kid named Arthur who quite literally fears getting popped--but it's a highly apt description of the collection's overall vibe. I've been thinking a lot lately about the role of the naïf in fiction, especially speculative fiction, where the naïf most often is the child or stranger to whom the world is explained, a vehicle for delivering exposition to the reader without it seeming quite so much like exposition. Hill loves the naïf with a passion, and it has nothing to do with exposition at all. If slipstream is fiction that makes you feel unsettled and off-balance as the world tilts under your feet, this is anti-slipstream, where the tilting of the world underfoot is insufficient to disrupt the inner worlds of one supremely confident character after another. The narrators and main characters (who often have names like John and Jack, cipher names that also deliberately give the sense of the author's own name in a very thin disguise) are children and near-children: autists, idiots savant, grown men who live in their parents' basements. They are certain about the way the world is. They need no explanations from others. This is just as much a 20th Century feeling as slipstream's uncertainty is, the ghost of the 1950s when everyone's certainty about what went where and who was who masked tremendous unsettlement, dissatisfaction, and memories of wartime pain and atrocity and loss.

When characters in these stories do terrible things--a teenager throwing a brick off an overpass and causing a possibly fatal car accident, a mother abandoning her husband as she flees with their child--Hill repeatedly describes them being set aside and deliberately forgotten. The teenager builds a mental wall of bricks all too like the one he threw, locking away memories like his own personal casks of Amontillado. The mother suggests a fun new game called Amnesia, where they'll pretend the child's father never existed at all. The naïf must stay naïve; the world must not be allowed to tilt. It's a supremely successful formula and it works over and over and over again, because this sort of willful blindness is exactly what lets people do terrible things and survive terrible happenings in the real world. There is no need to suspend disbelief. We see it all around and within ourselves, every day. Hill adds a layer of complexity by making the terrible things uncertain (did anyone really die in that car accident? is the abandoned father really in danger or is the mother just delusional?), so that the happenings that must be forgotten or shut away are not even solidly real when faced head-on. Sometimes that makes the deliberate amnesia easier; other times, it's harder, especially when the veil is ripped away only for the character to realize that the time when any of the questions could have been answered is past.

The non-fantastical pieces don't really seem to fit with the rest, even the ones that have genre-ish settings. "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead" is about a romance on the set of Dawn of the Dead, but it's still a romance, and the blue makeup and fake blood are almost certainly just blue makeup and fake blood. "Abraham's Boys" plays a little faster and looser with the genre line: it refuses to answer the question of whether Abraham Van Helsing legitimately hunted vampires or was just a lunatic, and also has enough creepiness and gore to put it firmly in the horror camp even without any supernatural elements. "The Widow's Breakfast" is so non-genre that the little creepy twists sit oddly on it, like clothes that don't quite fit. If this were a music CD rather than a book, I'd reorder it so that those pieces came first or perhaps went off into their own little mini-album. Having them interspersed among the more powerful, kick-in-the-gut fantasies like "The Cape" (about which I will say nothing except that it should be read without preconceptions for the best effect) rings a bit of uncertainty, as though Hill worries that the reader will be overwhelmed. Personally, I'd rather be overwhelmed. I don't want to get up and stretch my legs between acts; like one of the true movie aficionados in "20th Century Ghosts", I want to have the lights stay low, to be kept in my seat for longer than I'm entirely comfortable with, to stand up and stagger out only when I'm absolutely sure it's over.