20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill



  Introduction by Christopher Golden

  To Leanora:



  Introduction by Christopher Golden

  Best New Horror

  20th Century Ghost

  Pop Art

  You Will Hear the Locust Sing

  Abraham’s Boys

  Better Than Home

  The Black Phone

  In the Rundown

  The Cape

  Last Breath


  The Widow’s Breakfast

  Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead

  My Father’s Mask

  Voluntary Committal


  About the Author

  Other Books by Joe Hill



  About the Publisher


  Modern horror is not often subtle. Most of those who practice the art of the unsettling far too often go for the jugular, forgetting that the best predators are stealthy. Nothing wrong with going for the jugular, of course, but writers of genuine skill and talent have more than one trick in their bags.

  Not all of the stories in 20th Century Ghosts are horror stories, by the by. Some are wistfully supernatural, some are darkly disturbing mainstream fiction, and one lacks any trace of nastiness and is actually quite sweet. But they are subtle, friends and neighbors. Joe Hill is one stealthy bastard. Even the one about the kid who turns into a giant bug is subtle, and, let’s face it, how often can you say that?

  I first encountered Joe Hill as a name on a list of contributors to an anthology called The Many Faces of Van Helsing, edited by Jeanne Cavelos. Though I also had a story in that volume, I confess that I had not read any of the others when the time came for a small group signing at Pandemonium, a specialty bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Joe Hill was there, along with Tom Monteleone, Jeanne, and me.

  At that point I’d never read a word he’d written, but as the day went on, I found myself growing curious about Joe Hill. The most interesting thing, to me, that came out of our conversations was that while he had a love for horror stories, they were far from his only love. He had published mainstream stories in “literary” magazines (and, believe me, I use that word so loosely it might just fall off) and won awards for them. Yet he found himself coming home to horror and dark fantasy time and again.

  Be glad of that. If you aren’t now, you soon will be.

  I would’ve gotten around to reading The Many Faces of Van Helsing eventually, but in large part due to meeting Joe I moved it to the top of the stack. His story therein, “Abraham’s Boys,” was a chilling, textured examination of children who have begun to realize—as all children do—that their father is imperfect. It reminded me in the very best ways of the deeply unsettling independent film Frailty. “Abraham’s Boys” is an excellent story that falls about halfway through the book you’re currently holding, and it was good enough that it made me want to seek out more work by Joe Hill. But he’d published only short stories, and most in places that I wasn’t likely to run across casually. In the back of my head I made a note to watch for his name in the future.

  When Peter Crowther asked me if I’d be willing to read 20th Century Ghosts and write an introduction, I knew I shouldn’t agree. I haven’t time to do much of anything other than write and be with my family, but the truth is, I wanted to read this book. I wanted to satisfy my curiosity, to find out if Joe Hill was really as good as “Abraham’s Boys” indicated he might be.

  He wasn’t.

  He was oh-so-much better.

  The title of this volume is appropriate in myriad ways. Many of the tales involve ghosts in one form or another, and others reflect the effects of the 20th century’s echoes. In “You Will Hear the Locust Sing,” the author combines a fondness for and knowledge of the science fiction and monster films of the 1950s with the very same atomic fears that informed those films. The effect is both darkly humorous and heartfelt.

  Yet perhaps the most significant way in which the title of this collection resonates is in the author himself. There is an elegance and tenderness to this work that is reminiscent of an earlier era, of Joan Aiken and Ambrose Bierce, of Beaumont and Matheson and Rod Serling.

  At his best, Hill calls upon the reader to complete a scene, to provide the emotional response necessary for the story to truly be successful. And he elicits that response masterfully. These are collaborative stories that seem to exist only as the reader discovers them. They require your complicity to accomplish their ends. In the tale that leads off this volume, “Best New Horror,” it is impossible not to recognize a certain familiarity and to realize where the tale is leading, but rather than a failing, this is its greatest achievement. Without the reader’s feeling of almost jaded expectation, the story cannot succeed.

  He draws you into the intimacy of “20th Century Ghost” and the desperation of “The Black Phone” so that you are a part of the tale, sharing the experience with the central characters.

  Far too many writers seem to think there’s no place in horror for genuine sentiment, substituting stock emotional response that has no more resonance than stage directions in a script. Not so in the work of Joe Hill. Oddly enough, one of the best examples of this is “Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead,” which is not a horror story at all, though it takes place on the set during the making of George Romero’s classic film Dawn of the Dead.

  I’d like to talk to you about every story in this book, but the danger of writing something that goes at the front of the book is in giving too much away. I can say that if it were possible to scour from my mind the memory of having read these stories, I would happily do so, just so that I could have the pleasure of reading them again for the first time.

  “Better Than Home” and “Dead-Wood” are things of beauty. “The Widow’s Breakfast” is a poignant snapshot of another era and of a man who has lost his way.

  “20th Century Ghost” touches the nostalgic heart like many of my favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone. “You Will Hear the Locust Sing” is the love child of a ménage à trois with William Burroughs, Kafka, and the movie Them! “Last Breath” is flavored with a hint of Bradbury. All of these stories are wonderful, some of them startlingly good. “My Father’s Mask” is so weird and upsetting that it made me giddy.

  “Voluntary Committal,” the piece that closes this collection, is among the best novellas I have ever read, and speaks to the maturity of Joe Hill as a storyteller. It happens so rarely for a writer to pop up fully formed like this. And when it does…well, I confess I am the victim of inner turmoil as I struggle between elation and the urge to beat the crap out of him. “Voluntary Committal” is that good.

  “Pop Art,” though…“Pop Art” is transcendent. The single best short story I have read in years, it brings all of Joe Hill’s abilities to bear in a few short pages—the weirdness, the tenderness, the complicity.

  With the nascent efforts of a newly arrived author, fans and critics alike are wont to talk about their promise. Their potential.

  The stories in 20th Century Ghosts are promises fulfilled.

  —Christopher Golden

  Bradford, Massachusetts

  January 15, 2005

  Revised, March 21, 2007


  A month before his deadline, Eddie Carroll ripped open a manila envelope, and a magazine called The True North Literary Review slipped out into his hands. Carroll was used to getting magazines in the mail, although most of them had titles like Cemetery Dance and specialized in horror fiction. People sent him their books, too. Piles of them cluttered his Brookline to
wnhouse, a heap on the couch in his office, a stack by the coffee maker. Books of horror stories, all of them.

  No one had time to read them all, although once—when he was in his early thirties and just starting out as the editor of America’s Best New Horror—he had made a conscientious effort to try. Carroll had guided sixteen volumes of Best New Horror to press, had been working on the series for over a third of his life now. It added up to thousands of hours of reading and proofing and letter-writing, thousands of hours he could never have back.

  He had come to hate the magazines especially. So many of them used the cheapest ink, and he had learned to loathe the way it came off on his fingers, the harsh stink of it.

  He didn’t finish most of the stories he started anymore, couldn’t bear to. He felt weak at the thought of reading another story about vampires having sex with other vampires. He tried to struggle through Lovecraft pastiches, but at the first painfully serious reference to the Elder Gods, he felt some important part of him going numb inside, the way a foot or a hand will go to sleep when the circulation is cut off. He feared the part of him being numbed was his soul.

  At some point following his divorce, his duties as the editor of Best New Horror had become a tiresome and joyless chore. He thought sometimes, hopefully almost, of stepping down, but he never indulged the idea for long. It was twelve thousand dollars a year in the bank, the cornerstone of an income patched together from other anthologies, his speaking engagements and his classes. Without that twelve grand, his personal worst-case scenario would become inevitable: he would have to find an actual job.

  The True North Literary Review was unfamiliar to him, a literary journal with a cover of rough-grained paper, an ink print on it of leaning pines. A stamp on the back reported that it was a publication of Katahdin University in upstate New York. When he flipped it open, two stapled pages fell out, a letter from the editor, an English professor named Harold Noonan.

  The winter before, Noonan had been approached by a part-time man with the university grounds crew, a Peter Kilrue. He had heard that Noonan had been named the editor of True North and was taking open submissions, and asked him to look at a short story. Noonan promised he would, more to be polite than anything else. But when he finally read the manuscript, “Buttonboy: A Love Story,” he was taken aback by both the supple force of its prose and the appalling nature of its subject matter. Noonan was new in the job, replacing the just-retired editor of twenty years, Frank McDane, and wanted to take the journal in a new direction, to publish fiction that would “rattle a few cages.”

  “In that I was perhaps too successful,” Noonan wrote. Shortly after “Buttonboy” appeared in print, the head of the English department held a private meeting with Noonan to verbally assail him for using True North as a showcase for “juvenile literary practical jokes.” Nearly fifty people cancelled their subscriptions—no laughing matter for a journal with a circulation of just a thousand copies—and the alumna who provided most of True North’s funding withdrew her financial support in outrage. Noonan himself was removed as editor, and Frank McDane agreed to oversee the magazine from retirement, in response to the popular outcry for his return.

  Noonan’s letter finished:

  I remain of the opinion that (whatever its flaws), “Buttonboy” is a remarkable, if genuinely distressing, work of fiction, and I hope you’ll give it your time. I admit I would find it personally vindicating if you decided to include it in your next anthology of the year’s best horror fiction.

  I would tell you to enjoy, but I’m not sure that’s the word.


  Harold Noonan

  Eddie Carroll had just come in from outside, and read Noonan’s letter standing in the mudroom. He flipped to the beginning of the story. He stood reading for almost five minutes before noticing he was uncomfortably warm. He tossed his jacket at a hook and wandered into the kitchen.

  He sat for a while on the stairs to the second floor, turning through the pages. Then he was stretched on the couch in his office, head on a pile of books, reading in a slant of late October light, with no memory of how he had got there.

  He rushed through to the ending, then sat up, in the grip of a strange, bounding exuberance. He thought it was possibly the rudest, most awful thing he had ever read, and in his case that was saying something. He had waded through the rude and awful for most of his professional life, and in those flyblown and diseased literary swamps had discovered flowers of unspeakable beauty, of which he was sure this was one. It was cruel and perverse and he had to have it. He turned to the beginning and started reading again.

  IT WAS ABOUT a girl named Cate—an introspective seventeen-year-old at the story’s beginning—who one day is pulled into a car by a giant with jaundiced eyeballs and teeth in tin braces. He ties her hands behind her back and shoves her onto the backseat floor of his station wagon…where she discovers a boy about her age, whom she at first takes for dead and who has suffered an unspeakable disfiguration. His eyes are hidden behind a pair of round, yellow, smiley-face buttons. They’ve been pinned right through his eyelids—which have also been stitched shut with steel wire—and the eyeballs beneath.

  As the car begins to move, though, so does the boy. He touches her hip and Cate bites back a startled scream. He moves his hand over her body, touching her face last. He whispers that his name is Jim, and that he’s been traveling with the giant for a week, ever since the big man killed his parents.

  “He made holes in my eyes and he said after he did it he saw my soul rush out. He said it made a sound like when you blow on an empty Coke bottle, real pretty. Then he put these over my eyes to keep my life trapped inside.” As he speaks, Jim touches the smiley-face buttons. “He wants to see how long I can live without a soul inside me.”

  The giant drives them both to a desolate campground, in a nearby state park, where he forces Cate and Jim to fondle one another sexually. When he feels that Cate is failing to kiss Jim with convincing passion, he slashes her face, and removes her tongue. In the ensuing chaos—Jim shrieking in alarm, staggering about blindly, blood everywhere—Cate is able to escape into the trees. Three hours later she staggers out onto a highway, hysterical, drenched in blood.

  Her kidnapper is never apprehended. He and Jim drive out of the national park and off the edge of the world. Investigators are unable to determine a single useful fact about the two. They don’t know who Jim is or where he’s from, and know even less about the giant.

  Two weeks after her release from the hospital, a single clue turns up by U.S. mail. Cate receives an envelope containing a pair of smiley-face buttons—steel pins caked with dry blood—and a Polaroid of a bridge in Kentucky. The next morning a diver finds a boy there, on the river bottom, horribly decomposed, fish darting in and out of his empty eye sockets.

  Cate, who was once attractive and well liked, finds herself the object of pity and horror among those who know her. She understands the way other people feel. The sight of her own face in the mirror repels her as well. She attends a special school for a time and learns sign language, but she doesn’t stay long. The other cripples—the deaf, the lame, the disfigured—disgust her with their neediness, their dependencies.

  Cate tries, without much luck, to resume a normal life. She has no close friends, no employable skills, and is self-conscious about her looks, her inability to speak. In one particularly painful scene, Cate drinks her way into courage, and makes a pass at a man in a bar, only to be ridiculed by him and his friends.

  Her sleep is troubled by regular nightmares, in which she relives unlikely and dreadful variations on her abduction. In some, Jim is not a fellow victim, but in on the kidnapping, and rapes her with vigor. The buttons stuck through his eyes are mirrored discs that show a distorted image of her own screaming face, which, with perfect dream logic, has already been hacked into a grotesque mask. Infrequently, these dreams leave her aroused. Her therapist says this is common. She fires the therapist when she discovers he’s doodled a hor
rid caricature of her in his notebook.

  Cate tries different things to help her sleep: gin, painkillers, heroin. She needs money for drugs and goes looking for it in her father’s dresser. He catches her at it and chases her out. That night her mother calls to tell her Dad is in the hospital—he had a minor stroke—and please don’t come to see him. Not long after, at a day care center for disabled children, where Cate is part-timing, one child pokes a pencil into another child’s eye, blinding him. The incident clearly isn’t Cate’s fault, but in the aftermath, her assorted addictions become public knowledge. She loses her job and, even after kicking her habit, finds herself nearly unemployable.

  Then, one cool fall day, she comes out of a local supermarket, and walks past a police car parked out back. The hood is up. A policeman in mirrored sunglasses is studying an overheated radiator. She happens to glance in the backseat—and there, with his hands cuffed behind his back, is her giant, ten years older and fifty pounds heavier.

  She struggles to stay calm. She approaches the trooper working under the hood, writes him a note, asks him if he knows who he has in the backseat.

  He says it’s a guy who was arrested at a hardware store on Pleasant Street, trying to shoplift a hunting knife and a roll of heavy-duty duct tape.

  Cate knows the hardware store in question. She lives around the corner from it. The officer takes her arm before her legs can give out on her.

  She begins to write frantic notes, tries to explain what the giant did to her when she was seventeen. Her pen can’t keep pace with her thoughts, and the notes she writes hardly make sense, even to her, but the officer gets the gist. He guides her around to the passenger seat, and opens the door. The thought of getting in the same car with her abductor makes her dizzy with fear—she begins to shiver uncontrollably—but the police officer reminds her the giant is handcuffed in the back, unable to hurt her, and that it’s important for her to come with them to the precinct house.

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