Monday, October 12, 2009

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 12: You Don't Really Know Either of Us

I approached the prospect of writing about Joe Hill today with a curious enthusiasm. "Curious" because I felt his much-praised first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, threw a rod no later than the halfway mark, and went from a bit of an intriguing high-wire act -- which I say based on its fairly absurd premise -- to an utterly rote spook-show full of mysterious green glows and convenient talismans that are put to use just in the nick of time. However, by that time I'd also read his short story called "Best New Horror", a story I've mentioned in passing around here once or twice. That was such an unusual, unnerving and wonderful story that I knew it couldn't have been a fluke. And I knew that his collection of short fiction, 20th Century Ghosts, was full of stories that have had horror fans, critics and fellow writers absolutely unable to contain themselves about this incredible new talent. I'm not even really being sarcastic -- the praise has been effusive. But so it was with Heart-Shaped Box. Hence, "curious" and "enthusiasm".

The other thing about Joe Hill is that he's Stephen King's* son. I don't know when he copped to this exactly, but I think it was right around the time that Heart-Shaped Box came out, and after I'd read "Best New Horror". Whether that was planned on his part, or whether people started actually seeing pictures of the guy and saying "Hey, wait a minute", I don't know. The beans were going to be spilled eventually, unless Hill wanted to truly commit hardcore to the life of a pseudonymous writer, which he obviously didn't, and I can't blame him. The thing is, though, he's Stephen King's son. And he writes horror fiction. Martin Amis -- son, of course, of the great Kingsley Amis -- once said that as the child of a famous author who himself becomes a writer, you get "one free book". Meaning that, unlike so many struggling writers, you will get your first book published, but after that you're on your own. I don't remember if Amis has ever addressed the question of fairness with which that first book is received, but Hill might well have either been unfairly shat on, or unfairly fawned over. Clearly, the former didn't happen, and, despite my reservations, I don't really think the latter has happened, either.
So I pulled 20th Century Ghosts off the shelf, and the good news is that "Best New Horror" wasn't a fluke. The bad news is that neither was Heart-Shaped Box. The bad news comes in the form of "The Black Phone", a story about a kid named Johnny (not "John", of course. If you're a kid in a horror story, you'll go by the diminutive form of your name, and you'll damn well like it) who, while waiting outside a convenience store to be picked up by his father, gets kidnapped by a fat guy named Al. A feature of the con Al uses to entice Johnny towards his van is a flock of black balloons, released from the van's rear door, and here Hill does show his writing chops by describing the balloons as being the color of "sealskin", and making Johnny think of "poisoned grapes".

Once Johnny is again of clear mind, he immediately realizes who Al is -- which, in brief, is the serial killer who has been targeting kids in the area. Johnny even vaguely knew one of Al's earlier victims, a guy named Brian Yamada, against whom Johnny once faced off in baseball. Since Brian is dead, Johnny knows that he will rapidly follow suit unless he can think of some way out of the basement Al has locked him in. But the basement is, of course, virtually barren, save two things: the mattress Johnny sleeps on, and an old black rotary phone mounted on the wall. Al tells him that the phone doesn't work, although it does occasionally ring -- due to static electricity, Al believes. Obviously, the phone rings for Johnny, too, and while he occasionally puts the receiver to his ear only to hear dead air, he does eventually hear a voice on the other end.
As you knew he would, and I bet you also know who those voices are. The truth is that I was attracted to "The Black Phone" by the title. In an indefinable way, I just thought it sounded creepy. I thought there would be much more to what Al was about than simply another in a long line of John Wayne Gacy stand-ins, and that the phone would be something more interesting than a conduit for helpful ghosts. In fairness, of its type, "The Black Phone" is a decent story, but it's also not the kind of story you're likely to remember, or tell anyone about, unless you're the proprietor of a blog that requires you to. Furthermore, I'm aware, or at least suspicious that this is a possibility, that my demand for pure originality in horror fiction might sound both unreasonable and slightly rabid (at least, I sometimes think it does). An entirely original story, or as near as is possible, is not something I find myself demanding of crime fiction, my other favorite genre. But of course, the crime genre allows for a very finite amount of imagination -- there are only so many types of crimes to write about, and once you cut out things like trespassing and drunk in public, you're left with, like, two around which you can reasonably construct a story, whereas in horror fiction you're limited only by your own creative powers.

Not only that, I've always been struck by something Hemingway once said, which of course I can't find now, but basically he said that a writer needs to create something new every time out, but if you can't do that, you at least need to beat the guys who came before you. I would change that slightly to say that you at least need to want to beat the guys who came before you. Which is mighty big talk coming from me, an "aspiring" writer who has never published a word professionally, but, damn it, I know what I think is good, and with the "The Black Phone", Joe Hill wasn't trying to beat anybody. You read "The Black Phone", and you think, "Oh, yeah. I've read bunches of stories like that. What this is, is another one of those, I guess." And that's exactly how I felt about Heart-Shaped Box.

Ah, but wait, because I also read a story by Joe Hill called "My Father's Mask", and that, my friends, is a story I'd never read before. I picked it because, in his introduction, Christopher Golden says that "'My Father's Mask'" is so weird and upsetting that it made me giddy." And I'm here to tell you that it's both of those things. I didn't quite become giddy, but I can at least understand Golden's reaction..

In this story, a 13-year-old kid named Jack is traveling with his parents to an old family vacation home, left empty following his grandfather's sudden and unpleasant death. This death -- brought about by accidentally falling into an empty elevator shaft -- happened some years ago, and the trip to the vacation house comes, for Jack, completely out of the blue. He had plans for the evening that have now been scuttled by his parents, who are a bit cagey about the motives behind the trip. But they're also entirely chipper about it, especially Jack's mother, who tries to pass the time by playing a strange game with her son, involving a story, apparently created off the top of her head, about Jack's father being harassed at work by rumors spread by the "playing-card people". The playing-card people have caused his well-to-do parents to lose all their money, and will soon be coming after Jack. This is why Jack and his parents are now going to the vacation home. This game -- not this exact game, but ones like it -- appears to be something of a common thing between Jack and his mother. By the end of this story, this fact, as well as the fact that Jack's mother gently cuts off her husband when he attempts to take part, gains a bit of significance that is only just unexplainable.
When they reach the house -- a place Jack hasn't been to since he was very young -- they find the walls festooned with party masks, the small ones you wear over your eyes; all different colors and styles, hanging everywhere. When Jack asks what the masks are for, his mom says:
"Every vacation home ought to have a few masks lying around. What if you want a vacation from your own face? I get awfully sick of being the same person day in, day out."
Jack will go on to find another mask in his own room, which his mother will talk him into wearing. He will also have what he believes to be a nightmare, in which a boy in a white nightgown, with silver eyes and teeth, rides an old-fashioned bicycle into the vacation home's front yard. This dream will drive Jack into his parents' bed, and when he wakes in the morning, he will be alone in the bed, but will see his dad unzipping a suitcase, while standing completely naked, wearing only his own mask -- a clear one that "squashed the features beneath, flattening out of their recognizable shapes." His father's expression is otherwise blank, and the two do not exchange words. When Jack hurries down to the kitchen, he finds his mother, wearing a "sex-kitten" mask of her own, a long t-shirt, and suggestive black panties. The conversation between the two that follows between mother and son is both natural on the surface, and, somehow, entirely wrong.
There is much more that is deeply weird about this story, but I'm not going to tell you about it, so I hope that I've given you some sense that this story is about as far removed from "The Black Phone" as it's possible to be, and still be of the same genre. Joe Hill has a solid talent for evoking strangeness, the kind that is perhaps not immediately threatening, but which can freak you out more than the most lovingly described decapitation. As a reader of contemporary horror fiction, you may not even be aware that you miss this kind of writing, until you find yourself reading it for once. It's hard to explain why this sort of thing, when done well, is so effective and not sound hopelessly boring about it, to the point that you come close to castrating the story itself. The truly strange in art is at its most compelling, in my view, before people like, well, frankly, like myself have had a chance to really get their hooks into it and rob it of its power by trying to infuse it with meaning. Which is not to say that it must be meaningless, but you should never feel comfortable that the meaning you've carved out of the story, or film, is "correct". It's the assault against what we take to be normal and proper, the chaos of "My Father's Mask" that lingers. As Christopher Golden said, this story is weird and upsetting. To me, that is what the story means.
And, though not in quite the same way, that's how I feel about Hill's "Best New Horror". Hill is a writer of real talent, and great potential, a potential that has occasionally been realized. He has a new novel in the pipeline, and whatever I might have thought of his last one, Joe Hill has earned another look.
*I've thought about doing a post about Stephen King, but I'm worried that no one cares anymore. What more needs to be said, pro or con, after all? Any thoughts?


Greg said...

In fairness, of its type, "The Black Phone" is a decent story, but it's also not the kind of story you're likely to remember, or tell anyone about, unless you're the proprietor of a blog that requires you to.

You're not actually required to you know. But anyway, is "Joe Hill" his pseudonym (like Cage instead of Coppola) or was he raised by someone named Hill that King banged and left or what? I mean, why isn't his name Joe King if everyone knows who he is?

And as long as we're discussing names, "Johnny" and "Jack" are both slang for the formal "John" so my question is: Does he ever use another name?

The mask story sounds quite weird I admit. Did he find mom and dad naked or in sexy undies with masks on every morning and that inspired his story? And if so, considering daddy was Stephen King - Eeeeeeewwww!!!

bill r. said...

You're not actually required to you know...

I know. It was a kind of a joke, sort of thing.

But anyway, is "Joe Hill" his pseudonym (like Cage instead of Coppola) or was he raised by someone named Hill that King banged and left or what? I mean, why isn't his name Joe King if everyone knows who he is?...

Are you saying I should have explained this? I can't do all the research! Whose blog is this, anyway! So the answer is, "Joe Hill" is his pseudonym, as well as half his real name. His full name is "Joe Hillstrom King". First off, "Hillstrom"??? Second off, I can't blame the guy for lopping off the "King" and trying to go it alone. It seems to have paid off, too.

And as long as we're discussing names, "Johnny" and "Jack" are both slang for the formal "John" so my question is: Does he ever use another name...


Did he find mom and dad naked or in sexy undies with masks on every morning and that inspired his story?...

No. The story is much weirder than that. I was worried that by cutting off my synopsis when I did, everyone would think it was some sort of incestuous Eyes Wide Shut...which, okay, would be really weird and upsetting, but "My Father's Mask" is much harder to pin down than that.

John said... should never feel comfortable that the meaning you've carved out of the story, or film, is "correct".

...unless you take the "postmodernist" view that EVERY reading has equal validity, and what the author originally meant has no more weight than the worst reader's least considered interpretation of the material.

So if I say the story's really a trenchant critique of contemporary social mores and bourgeois sexual politics disguised as a comical suburban sci-fi satire involving giant rats and cannibal aliens, then damn it, that's what it is, all right.

Until I change my mind again, that is.

Rick Olson said...

Methinks the "mask" thing has some meaning for Hill ... look at that picture. Without the beard, he'd be the spitting image of dear old dad.

bill r. said...

John - I don't take that postmodernist view (the excuse often used for that is "trust the art, not the artist", which, for one thing, is obnoxious inthat it seems to mythologize the creative process) but story's like "My Father's Mask" DO leave things open to all sorts of interpretations. Within reason, of course, since there are specific themes being touched on, but still, you have a lot of room to move in that respect.

Rick - I know, right!? I thought that myself, although the father/son relationship in the story doesn't seem to connect very well to what I know about Hill and King. Still, you look at Hill, you take the beard away, you think of the pseudonym...who knows?

Rick Olson said...

The saying "trust the art and not the artist," which I've used from time to time, simply acknowledges that there are influences upon the artist -- cultural, familial, etc. -- of which she or he might be unaware, but that nevertheless show up in the art itself. There's nothing mythological about it, it's called the subconscious.

bill r. said...

But Rick, who's to say it's the director's subconscious, and not that of the viewer doing the interpretation?

Rick Olson said...

Good question. Of course, anyone can say anything they want about the meaning of art, but the key is can they back it up? Can they point to concrete features within the work that substantiates their claim? Then, it can be judged as to whether its pure hogwash or not.

As John amusingly says, you can say that a film's "really a trenchant critique of contemporary social mores and bourgeois sexual politics", and if you point out the reasons, and they make sense -- more than just because I say so -- then that's what the film's about.

There's a model in art theory called the interpretive triangle, or something like that, that views art as a "trialectic" with the artist at one corner of an equilateral triangle, the viewer at another, and the object of art at the third. Meaning is constructed, so the theory goes, by all three. This allows the meaning in art to come from any one of the three nodes.

Will Errickson said...

I quite enjoyed Hill's short stories--what was the one about the boy whose friend is a balloon?--but haven't read his novel.

As for King himself, man, I just reread It for the first time in 20 years and it was terrible. Maybe a post on whether his stuff holds up? I'm afraid my love of his early work is based not on quality, but on nostalgia for when I first read him when I was a teenager. Danse Macabre however I can still appreciate.

bill r. said...

Rick - That's all fine, and makes sense, but where I find myself getting hung up is the idea that certain psychological interpretations of the artist, or the motivations of same, become taken as fact because someone's interpretation of their work can be "backed up". While the audience who is making the interpretation is never willing to look back at themselves, and wonder if it's their psychology that's being exposed.

Will - I won't be re-reading It. Don't you worry about that. I was going to read an old and new short story, neither of which I've read before.

L. Rob Hubb said...

King is still worthwhile to read, although I think that he's starting to run out of steam as America's main horrormeister... his latest collection of stories published last year was pretty mediocre - and of the novels, DUMA KEY and the ending of the DARK TOWER series are pretty much the only notable books of late.

bill r. said...

I was surprised to hear some very good things about DUMA KEY. If I weren't reading all these stories and so forth, I'd probably be reading that.

I hated CELL and THE COLORADO KID. I don't see how anyone could give either one a passing grade.