Sunday, October 04, 2009

Short Story Sunday (RIP IV)

Back for another installment of RIP IV's Short Story Sunday. At this point I've sort of abandoned Joyce Carol Oates and Daphne Du Maurier in favor of Joe Hill's collection, 20th Century Ghosts. The first story was so chilling and captivating that I couldn't put it down. I'm three stories in, and I have yet to report on any of them, so here we go...
*Note: I read "Best New Horror" for last week's Short Story Sunday, but life jumped up and got in the way, so I wasn't able to post about it. I'm playing catch up today! I finished the other two just this morning, so they're fresh.
"Best New Horror" is the opening story of the collection, and it's the first truly chilling story I've read for the RIP challenge this time around. Who knew it's so hard to find really SCARY stories anymore! I suppose most authors are too sensitive and postmodern for that...or something.
In this tale, Eddie Carroll edits a yearly an anthology--America's Best New Horror--and he's getting steadily more disgruntled at all the crap that lands on his doorstep. The stories are sensational rehashings of past writings. Hardly an originality. That is, until he receives a letter from a professor named Harold Noonan who was crucified for having published a particularly disturbing and "genuinely distressing" horror story by the title of "Buttonboy" in a university journal. The story is raw, unapologetic, and the professor is accused of being a misogynist and other horrible things simply for having printed it. The writer is a former janitor at the university named Peter Kilrue.
Eddie Carroll is so taken by the story that he contacts Professor Noonan, and goes far out of his way to track down Peter Kilrue to get his permission to publish the story in America's Best New Horror. It's also his hope that Kilrue has other gems to offer, and he's invigorated by his job and the prospect of new literary talent for the first time in many years. His search leads him to the Kilrue brothers' home in a deserted mountain area where they all live an odd, detached kind of life. And suddenly Carroll finds himself in a horror story all his own.
GREAT short story! It's quite an ambiguous ending, but it's just wonderful. Truly creepy and hair raising at a number of points in the story, it really started 20th Century Ghosts with a bang, and so far it's the most reminiscent of Hill's father's (Stephen King's) work. Don't get me wrong--it's still original--and it is probably better written than most of the King stuff I've read, but I have to admit that I have not read much of King's short fiction, so I'm pretty biased.
The other two stories I'm reporting on today are far less "pure horror" and more thoughtful ruminations with odd, paranormal, or horror elements. The second is the inspiration for the collection's title, "20th Century Ghost."
Told in timeshifts, "20th Century Ghost" is the story of the Rosebud movie theater, long-time owner, Alec Sheldon, and the theater's resident ghost, Imogene Gilchrist. Alec first sees the ghost at the age of 15, shortly after receiving the news that his brother was killed in the South Pacific. As he grapples with the news and the loss, he escapes to the Rosebud one afternoon, and in the midst of watching Fantasia, Imogene appears in the seat beside him. At first he doesn't realize she's a spectre, but he soon notices the hand on his arm is decidedly freezing, and as she talks about the movie she develops a nosebleed that becomes progressively worse. By the time he retreats from his seat, he sees that she's slumped in her chair, head falling over to her left shoulder, the blood drying on her face.
Alec is captivated by Imogene, and begins working at the theater shortly after his encounter, and he owns it until well into his 70s. He catalogues Imogene's appearances over the years. She picks all the best movies to make herself known: The Wizard of Oz, Harold and Maude, The Birds, and the list goes on.
As Alec is nearing the end of his tenure and the Rosebud's popularity is dying, a young boy who saw Imogene in The Birds as a 12-year-old comes back to town as a grown-up, a famous director in fact, and buys the theater to refurbish it. Alec is given a seat, center stage, to watch a revival showing of The Birds, and a documentary filmmaker's lens catches a moment of exchange between Alec and Imogene that will make Imogene a famous ghost and ultimately change Alec's life forever, though I can't tell you just how.
While the ghostly element is certainly creepy, "20th Century Ghost" is much more about love and loss, and something of an homage to the movies. It was really a beautiful story, and I found myself quite touched by it.
Finally, the last story I'll report on today, is "Pop Art." While its subject matter is the most off-kilter so far, it's not horror in the least. That being said, I still really enjoyed it. The nameless narrator (I think he was nameless...I can't find his name now), grows up with an unusual friend named Art Roth. Art is inflatable. Yes, you read that correctly--inflatable. Hill explains this as a genetic disorder like any other. Art can move and sort of float along, but he can't move very quickly, he has no internal organs, and he can't speak since his mouth doesn't move. Instead, years of therapy help him write his thoughts with crayons (pencils or pens might pop him).
Art is a delicate, thoughtful boy and young man, and his friendship with the narrator is unlikely. The narrator keeps to himself and tries to cultivate his image as a sociopath just to keep others away from him in his unhappy existence. One day, as he saves Art from a gang of bullies on the monkey bars, things change, and the two become fast friends. Theirs is a typical relationship among boys--lots of teasing and silliness--but Art also has a bit of a fixation on death. Honestly, how long can someone inflatable stay patched and inflated? It is a strange and sad coincidence that leads to Art's downfall, and our narrator blames himself entirely.
It's really a story about friendship and growing pains. The narrator's level of responsibility and awareness of the well-being of others inflates (pardon the pun) exponentially as Art goes downhill. It's a really weird device for storytelling, but Hill did it well because I sort of forgot to think about Art's condition, even though Hill constantly reminds the reader, and saw him only as a person with an illness who was losing time.
20th Century Ghosts, so far, is one of the most impressive story collections I've read in a very long time as he tale stands nicely on its own, and so far I don't feel like I'm re-reading the same old thing over and over again. I hope he can sustain it throughout the collection because so far, I'm sold!
I'll be counting these not only for the RIP IV Challenge, but also for 100 Shots of Short.

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