Really too young to be feeling this old, to be honest with you.
Had the pleasure of stumbling over a story called 20th Century Ghost a couple of days ago – a flawed but interesting piece by one Joe Hill. A guy you may or may not know, son of another guy named Stephen King (who you may or may not know, either).
Although if you haven’t heard of King we probably don’t have enough common interests for you to actually enjoy this post. Watch this trailer of a film based on Joe Hill’s second novel instead.
Joe Hill is a writer of suspense/horror/supernatural thrillers, kind of along the lines of his father, a slightly more illustrious writer straddling these genres and half of the known universe.
Stephen King has only been getting better with age – and for a writer who has been prolific for forty years and wasn’t bad to begin with, that is the best compliment one can come up with. His writing has been characterized by his grasp of popular culture, and his ability to create believable characters and burrow into their heads. Not to mention malevolent automobiles, tortured writers, and man’s propensity for unspeakable evil.
Joe Hill’s story cuts his father’s grass and then plunges the mower through the nearest hedge, into tar made sticky under the afternoon sun.
The premise is simple enough – old Alec Sheldon worries over his life’s work coming undone. He has lived solely for running and maintaining an old theater called the Rosebud, and he’s afraid he might witness its demise firsthand. Entwined with his narrative is the figure of a young girl who died there during a screening of the Wizard of Oz, and who shows herself intermittently to moviegoers throughout the twentieth century.
The nod to Citizen Kane is only a minor facet of Hill’s narrative. Themes of development arrested and innocence lost pervade the whole story – and the ending transcends the written medium entirely to present a sweeping finale more suitable for a mainstream dramatic feature. One is reminded of the last scene of Scorcese’s Wolf of Wall Street, the overhead shot of a rapt audience breaking down the distinction between event and attendees.
Stephen King is greatly influenced by movies, too; but his preoccupation has been the campy B-movie and how psychologically astute characters can send its plot haywire. What Hill does with this story is to take the pan-generational obsession with the big screen and present it in microcosm. People associated with the film industry seem to acquire a larger-than-life appeal; Hill simply shifts the focus from personalities to the cinematic experience itself.
The ghost being served up is not the girl who haunts the Rosebud, but Alec Sheldon and his cinephilic ilk. They are caught seeking coherence on 70mm, unable to reconcile their own dreary existence with the overblown denouements and crisp resolutions they see onscreen.
Hill’s story is lovingly crafted from what is evidently a formidable knowledge of movie-lore, although it is far from perfect. The dialogue gets clunky on more than one occasion:
“My concession-stand girl told me she was quitting yesterday. No notice or anything.”
“Was it the ghost?”
“Heck no. One of her paste-on nails fell into someone’s food so I told her not to wear them anymore. No one wants to get a fingernail in a mouthful of popcorn. She told me a lot of boys she knows come in here and if she can’t wear her nails she wasn’t going to work for me no more so now I got to do everything myself.”
A wooden ear is, of course, merely a minor niggle with what is otherwise a great story – ol’ Steve himself was similarly let down in The Dead Zone; but since it is still ranked consistently amongst his best work, I don’t see why his son shouldn’t get credit for writing a doozie such as this.
Or maybe my glasses have a slight rose tint, I don’t know.
It seems only yesterday that I snuck a paperback copy of Everything’s Eventual from the neighborhood lending library against my father’s admonishments, and few things have come close to topping my first exposure to King, Sr.
He had thirty years of steady writing under his belt when that book came out – and the story we’re discussing here is the titular short in Joe Hill’s maiden collection. If he’s already this good one can only speculate as to where Steve’s Boy will be headed next.
For a week or two, anyway.
Looming deadlines? I think I have a couple left. But this baby arrived in the mail yesterday, and once I’m done reading we can carry the mock-condescend-dissection a few steps further.
Happy new year’s, everyone!