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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

LBT's Generic Book Corner: 20th Century Ghosts


Greetings and salutations, and welcome to another post where I ramble about books and perhaps reminisce about grade school trauma long since past! Since discussing World War Z last time, I have been thinking about modern horror literature (full disclosure - for me, modern literature encompasses anything written post WWI. The glory of being an English Major.), and especially one of my favorite little gems, Joe Hill's collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts.



To be honest, this is not straight horror fiction, but I suppose because Hill's two novels (Heart Shaped Box and Horns (the latter likely being one of my favorite books of 2010 (I know you were all DYING for that information))) brought to the forefront of my brain, and I am not sure I can recommend this enough.

20th Century Ghosts is comprised of 15 strange, sublime, creepy tales, which range from the horrific to the bizarre to the incredibly sweet. I am not sure how many of you have read it (although not enough. Even if everyone has read it, it is still not enough.) so I do want to avoid spoilers, but I have to say that "Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead" is such an unexpected take on a zombie story, I believe I started cackling in surprised delight. "The Cape," "Voluntary Committal," "The Black Phone," and "Best New Horror" left me with a moderate to severe feeling of skin-crawliness and disquiet, and "Pop Art"....I will defend the story "Pop Art" to my dying breath, I love it that much. I would woo that story if I could.

It seems to be an appropriate time to wrap this up, so I will end by saying that if any of you have an interest in short stories, or horror, I recommend this so very highly. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

20 comments:

  1. I know someone who like scary short stories, but his name escapes me at this moment. Nevertheless, should I see this person, nameless as he is, on some dark street somewhere, I will be sure to pass along to him this information.

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  2. Good show, Mans. See that you do. Now, I wonder who that discerning gentleman night be....

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  3. He was a luckless fellow I met at boarding house. I was at the time a visiting lecturer at a small university whose charter was revoked some years later on account of some untidiness that was never exactly clear to me, and in need of a room for the semester, found myself in the salon of a small but not unpleasant house along an elm lined street on the far end of the small town.

    As I waited for the mistress of the house, a ruddy cheeked woman who was certainly younger than she appeared to be, some unmarried sister or perhaps young widow, to prepare my room, I walked around the shelves, neck tilted to the side at a slight angle, reading spines.

    I did not year the man enter the room, the hardwood floors being dampened by several worn rugs. "You won't find much good to read here."

    His voice startled me. I looked up at him, standing in the door way, hands folded across his thing chest, and said, "I'm just waiting until my room is ready." I introduced myself to him and he said his name as we shook hands, his being soft and slightly cool, but I, being terrible with names, instantly forgot it.

    "Do you like to read?" he asked me, not moving from his spot in the door, the bright light of the foyer spilling past his slumped shoulders. He had the look of one of those men who have lived their whole lives in boarding houses, who will die in one as well, far from whatever place they once imagined might be home, unaware, even in those final moments that they have no such place. He coughed thickly into his elbow.

    "Yes, as a matter of fact I do. I am here to lecture at the university. I am presenting on some interesting manuscripts that I--"

    He broke off my speech with a guttural utterance and turned his back. I watched him walk upstairs to his room, which I found out later was a small section of the attic under a gable not given to storage and dust, and I thought him to be singular.

    This impression was proven true in the following weeks.

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  4. It was but three days later, on the evening after my first lecture, that I came into the presence of the nameless boarder again.

    My lecture that afternoon, detailing across the course of the three hours scheduled the discoveries I'd made of certain manuscripts of no small interest to a certain type of individual whose mind might be said to bend toward, if not the esoteric, at least the eccentric, and detailing in specific how I came by those manuscripts, or at least as specific as I could be without breaching certain promises I'd made to dear friends, and without casting my actions in those years, when I made the search for those manuscripts the sole purpose of my waking, in too negative a light, and finally how those manuscripts came to be part of the permanent collection of the university that was no paying my room and board at the boarding house on that elm lined lane on the far side of town.

    But this story is not the story of that. This is the story of this:

    It was the evening of that first lecture, as I returned from campus, walking along the simple quiet streets of that small Kentucky town, the clip-clopping of my shoes on the cracked sidewalks, my thoughts cast like small bones on a cave floor, scattered, but searching for meaning, when I saw, on the gingerbread plagued front porch of the house that was to be my home for some months, the man, his name just beyond the reach of my memory, leaning against the railing, looking at something in the front yard. His face was in a rapture.

    As I drew close, the yard now perfectly visible to me, it appeared that he looked at nothing so interesting as the slowly shifting shadow of the bare elm that stood in the yard, a bark clad menhir. I stood for a moment, hoping that something worthy of a gaze of such intensity would reveal itself to me, but nothing did. Grass rustled. Dead leaves lay still. Finally, I looked up to address the man, to engage him as he had engaged my imagination in those few days, but he was gone.

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  5. Inside, as Mrs. Weatherwill--for that was the name of the smiling woman, a widow as I soon learned, and one not reticent to discuss at length both her now dead husband's cruelty and his sudden and violent death--plied me with semi-warm burgoo and grits and bacon, I conspired to inquire after the nameless boarder in a manner that would not appear indecorous.

    "Oh, yes, you mean Mr.--" she said, speaking the man's name, yet at the moment when it passed her lips, I bit into my tongue, attacking a spoon of that brown stew with more fervor than I expected, sending bolts of pain through that red muscle and my jaw. I howled and Mrs. Weatherwill jumped, spilling buttermilk on my suit pants.

    After some moments of confusion and cleaning, I sat, pantless, in a purple robe of the kind that one can only imagine on dowagers, a blood red handkerchief to my throbbing maw, as Mrs. Weatherwill continued, never again saying the man's name.

    "He's been here for some time. Even before my husband, God rest his soul where ever God shall see fit, died. He keeps to himself. Pays on time, even early, and more or less keeps to himself. He spoke to my husband, bless his poor heart and battered head, a few times before he died. But he mostly keeps to himself."

    This dialogue, or monologue perhaps as one speaker's mechanism of speech was at that moment out of order, did little to shed light onto the the man living above me or offer any insight into my own desire to know more. He was slumped and poor looking. Ill dressed. Rude. Aloof. He was separate from all around.

    That night, as I lay in bed, starlight the only light seeping into the dark box that housed my bed, I listened to his footsteps on the floor above me. I slept and did not dream.

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  6. My next encounter with the man was on the following Saturday. I rose early and rather than spend the hours before my lunch reading in my room as had been my habit for some number of years, I decided to take a walk.

    I knew nothing of the town or of its history but in the years since my experiences there I have sought any scrap of information I can about the place in hopes that perhaps some base fault in the town's distant past could provide some explanation, however illogical and unsatisfying, for what occurred there. Yet, it will surely disappoint the eager reader to learn that the town harbored no such dark past, no ancient moral fissure, no chronology of perversion that could give less sound minds than mine some confused reason to label the place "cursed" or "evil" or "polluted." No, the town is a common town full of common people who do common things in common places. The houses are of a common style and the plants are so common as to not even have colorful local names. The university, despite its later failings, which are wholly attributable to the specific moral and spiritual flaws of a small group of men who were responsible for the stewardship of the place, was a common university and in my time the students showed sparks of neither genius nor madness.

    This is all to say it was and still is to this day, and had always been, the very picture of a boring country town. Unremarkable as the air.

    Despite this common nature, I quite enjoyed my long morning walk in the long rays of the sun. Eventually, I came upon the downtown. The store fronts to the West gleamed with the light of the sun to the East. Men stood inside of the drug store talking. Women moved from place to place. Children darted in and out of stores with innumerable candies and toys and hollers trailing them like the tail of a cat.

    I saw the nameless man, a poor appellation as he had a name and a name known to others, standing outside of a sporting goods store, admiring either the fishing rod that stood on display, or perhaps his own reflection. As I approached, I noted the same strange look on his face. Intense. Fascinated. Enthralled. He did not notice me until I was right upon him and before he could speak or move I said, "You are a very rude man."

    These words, calculated to offend so as to hold him in some disagreement, worked. "I beg your pardon?"

    I ignored his meaning and said, "You do not get it." At this he looked at me with the most blank face I'd ever seen. Unnerved, I continued, hoping to see some movement in that empty visage. "The other day, when I came to board, you spoke to me and as I responded, you dismissed me in a rather brusque manner. This was rude."

    "I meant no offense."

    "Well, offend you did. Why engage me in talk of reading and stories if you do not want to hear what I have to say?"

    "I care nothing for stories."

    "You do not? But you said to me that I would find nothing of interest to read in the salon."

    "Indeed, I did. And I asked if you liked to read. I asked not to find a kindred reader, but to know if I should stay away from you."

    I did not know what to say to this, so I remained quiet, hoping the silence would draw him out. We stood for an uncomfortable moment and then he said, "Would you be interested in lunch?"

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  7. It is here that my notes are fragmentary. I know I wrote much on this, detailing every nuance of what followed--how I encountered him downtown one morning when I took a walk, how we lunched together after my confronting him on the issues of his rude behavior, how he told me a very long story about how he does not like stories, or does like them, or how he said that--I'm not sure what else. I know I wrote it down, but it is gone.

    There was not much left after the fire.

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  8. The guy, he was just really weird. The first time I saw him, he was standing in the lobby of the Holiday Inn, with his head turned all the way on its side, looking at the DVDs. I was getting a bucket of ice and he started talking about some lecture he was giving at the "university".

    I mean, we don't have a university here. There's a school for the deaf, but I doubt that he would be giving a lecture there. I guess he could do it in sign language. I don't know. I just wanted some ice for a my drink.

    I'd been there for two weeks because my wife and I split up and I had to go somewhere. I mean, it is bad enough to have your marriage fall apart and have to come home from a day of trying to sell commercial real estate in a down market to a fucking Holiday Inn, and not even a nice one with interior doors, but one of the old ones with the outside doors, but to have to have weirdos talking to you in the lobby about books--ugh. My life is so fucked up.

    So, I just went back to my room and had my drink. A plastic cup with two ice cubes and four fingers of Old Crow.

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  9. Late at night, I could hear someone walking around outside. I could hear the hard soled shoes on the cement walkway. At first, I didn't think anything of it, right. Its a motel. People come and go. Folks come to fuck. Families on long car trips stay on the cheap like five to a bed. It is a motel and when you live here, you get used to the sound of people.

    But for some reason I woke up and instantly thought of that guy. And I imagined that it was him walking up and down outside of the doors, for whatever reason, and I looked at my clock and it was like four in the morning.

    I was up the rest of the night.

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  10. So then, a few days later, I saw him again.

    I'd had a really shitty day. This deal on a small out parcel of warehouse space fell through because the buyer couldn't get the financing straightened out. The bank balked because the appraisal was too low and everyone is just skittish these days.

    So, I was in a really bad mood. That sale would have helped the year. Not made it, but would have helped not make this year a complete disaster for me.

    I came home and changed and got a drink and was going to go out to the Applebee's and have dinner, and some more drinks, when I look down from the walkway at my car across the parking lot and see that the driver's side window is smashed.

    I'm standing there and I just can't move, I am so fucking pissed. And I think, "Who the fuck would do this? My wife? Is she that mad me? Her brother? Fuck everyone." Those are more or less my exact thoughts.

    Anyway, I am just trying to get over my rage at that moment, the desire to just start kicking the windows and walls and through everything over the railings, and I notice him standing down there. And he's fucking staring at my car too. And I think, "Did this fuck job knock out my window?"

    I don't know why I thought that. I mean, he was just walking through the parking lot and he looked at a smashed window. The glass was still on the driver's seat. I'd look. But for some reason he just stood out to me, like God and Jesus and Mary and Joseph were like, "Umm, look at him."

    And rage welled up like I hadn't felt since I moved out and I had to go back in the room so I wouldn't go off on the guy.

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  11. Normally, I'm really easy to get along with. That's what made me the #1 commercial real estate sales person in the region for several years. But that was several years ago. I guess I am less friendly now.

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  12. Then on Saturday, I'm about to go into the sporting goods store and talk to them about working out a payment plan for my account which is past due (long story), and I look up and it is that guy.

    For a moment he is just standing there. He's average height and weight I guess. I would guess in his early forties. A big round face that was real plain. Like a plate. Thick glasses, the old kind that my father used to wear. Loosing his hair. I looked at his hands and shoes--that's a salesman thing, you can learn a lot.

    I am about to just walk in, but I don't because in that moment for some reason I think my curiosity took over. He just starts talking to me and says something like "You offended me." And I say, "Excuse me?" and then he says, "No I am not going to excuse you," which made me laugh.

    He didn't seem bright, but then if you are living in a Holiday Inn in rural Kentucky, how bright are you? You clearly have made some bad choices in life.

    Finally, I stop him, because he is just talking and talking and ask if he wants to get lunch. I figure, what can it hurt. Strange stories entertain clients. And you never know who is in the market for property.

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  13. The town is just a regular sort of town and nothing really unusual ever happens here. There is the deaf school, so there are lots of deaf children, but other than that, I guess it is like any other place.

    We ate at a coffee shop in what used to be a department store.

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  14. I mostly work on the weekends. Just a few hours to pick up some extra cash. I've done it since the coffee shop opened. It is really cool because I remember when it was a department store. That was when I was a kid. I would come with my mom and look at the toys while she shopped. There were pay stations through the whole store, but no cash registers. When you paid, the clerk wrote a ticket, and sent it up in this tube to some accounting room with your money. I loved the sound of the little capsule getting pulled up into the system. Then you stood there for a few minutes and with a whoosh, the tube would shoot out another capsule, the same one I guess, with your change and receipt in it. Before it was a department store, it was a hotel. I guess everything used to be something else and I guess that everything becomes something else some day. I mean, I don't guess I will work here forever and I guess this places won't be here forever even if I wanted to.

    I also work at the deaf school during the week in the cafeteria, though there aren't so many students any more. They get mainstreamed now. Even this will be gone someday.

    Now, that Saturday, I don't really remember two men coming in. People come and go. I remember the regulars, but it isn't strange that I don't remember everyone, even though it was the day the Holiday Inn burned down. I mean, you would think I would remember because of that, but honestly, maybe that is what made me forget, if I ever knew.

    What I am saying is, I can't say one way or the other who was there. I just sell coffee.

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  15. Better Homes and Gardens of Kentucky RealtyJanuary 11, 2011 at 12:40 PM

    HOLIDAY INN: PRICE REDUCED BY $500K. $1.1M renovation recently completed. Priced less than 3X revenue, w/ cash flow.

    DISCLAIMER: Fully remodeled due to fire. Structurally sound. Full warranty from architect.

    Location: [Redacted], Kentucky
    Price: $2,700,000.00 all cash
    Rooms: 126
    Property Type: Limited services with meeting room and leased Applebee's
    Revenue: $815,136 for 12 months ending Oct, 2010. The room revenue for the same period isup $40K

    NOTES: Though not located near an interstate or major city, upon a close review of this Holiday Inn Hotel, you will quickly discover it is not a typical older Holiday Inn.

    This well constructed facility has been repositioned into a modern building due to major fire damage last year. Let this curse be your blessing.

    The property also benefits from a franchised on-site Applebee’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill, bringing the recognition of a nationally known restaurant chain.

    The hotel has demonstrated consistent historical revenue levels.

    In spite of the weak economy and new competition, the operating revenue is UP. If you are looking for a renovated hotel with a steady (and increasing) income stream and cash flow, this Holiday Inn Hotel deserves your consideration.

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  16. We returned to Mrs. Weatherwill's boarding house together, bonded by silence. I remember dwelling upon the tale that the man had told me, unable to understand the clear meaning, as though it were held up beneath a bright light on the far side of a frosted glass.

    Add to this the complication of I don't now remember anything about the story other than the end, or one image from the end, which he told me in a soft voice.

    His sister, her red face, her panting breaths, standing over him with the hatchet, her red shirt and skirt, but a different red from that in her cheeks, and her panting breath, standing there over him with the hatchet, her panting and him, the nameless man crying out to her, and something else. I can only assume she did not hack him to death as he still lived at that point. Unless I'd broken bread with a haint.

    What had caused her to act thus? I do not remember. Had she gone mad? Perhaps. From that one image, it would be reasonable to assume madness. But, perhaps she was right. Perhaps what I've lost not only explains the simple image I still retain but justifies it. Makes her, his older sister Sarah, a hero. She, a knight, a guardian, a defender, a visionary.

    Who can say. I cannot remember his name. I cannot remember his story. I cannot remember her reasons. My papers burned and my position with the university terminated. I remember her name and it will have to stand as something unknowable forever.

    But I do know this: when he told me the story, and told me about his sister Sarah, I could see her. Not some image of her that I constructed from the scant details he parceled out over thin stew, but I saw the real and essential Sarah. I do not know anything about her, but I understand her, I think.

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  17. So, at some point after we finished the bottle of Old Crow in my room, but before he fell down the cement stairs, laughing the whole way, spilling Skittles that he had in pockets (I don't fucking have any idea why his pockets were full of Skittles), one of us said, "Let's just burn this fucking place down."

    I don't remember which. Maybe the Holy Ghost. Or maybe Leno. We had the TV on. We started on the 1.75 of Heaven Hill I had and then he fell down the stairs, spilling his Skittles the whole way, the little red and purple and yellow thinks raining a click clack on the cement steps and I was laughing and he was laughing, even though that shit had to hurt.

    So we walked over to the gas station and filled up a couple of gas cans with gas. Totally normal. Two drunk men filling up gas cans. It is Kentucky and Saturday. These things happen. Pay your money and God bless you.

    I honestly don't remember much. I sat in my car and watched the first room light up and I think it was then that I realized that burning down a Holiday Inn just because I was upset that I hadn't sold enough that year to be a top seller or that my wife didn't love me any more or that I'd hurt her by doing all sorts of stuff I shouldn't or how our daughter had died in a car wreck the year before or how I was just angry that nothing seemed to work out for me and that I was hungry wasn't such a good idea.

    But it happened and I watched it and I saw that guy, whose name I never got, standing on the balcony, with the fire all up and down and in his room and it flickered red on him and to be honest, I couldn't quite see him. He was just a little shadow moving around. Or, my room. I don't remember which one he was standing in front of. I don't remember.

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  18. If I knew how to post applause .gifs, I would post them all. Bravo.

    - LBT

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  19. Mans could not be any more awesome if he tried, which he wouldn't have to do, because he is Mans.

    Also, "Joe Hill" (Steven King's son) and I were in the same AP English class. He was a very nice boy. Fun facts!

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