What Can We Steal From Joe Hill’s “Best New Horror”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Best New Horror,” short story
Author: Joe Hill, on Twitter at @joe_hill
Date of Work: 2005
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was first published in Issue 3 of Postscripts, a journal published by the UK’s PS Publishing.  Mr. Hill subsequently chose to lead his first short story collection 20th Century Ghosts with the piece.

Bonuses:  Here’s what Terrence Rafferty of the New York Times Sunday Book Review thought of Mr. Hill’s work.  (Long story short: he liked it.)  And here’s Graham Sleight’s thoughtful review of the collection and its lead story.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Acceptance of Genre Work

Discussion:
Eddie Carroll is the editor of Best New Horror, a yearly anthology of stories that represent the best in the genre.  Eddie is in something of a lull in his life—his wife is gone and he hasn’t been really excited about any new stories—when he is sent a copy of “Buttonboy.”  It’s a nasty little story about a random act of extreme violence that determines (and becomes) a woman’s fate.  The story is controversial and unpleasant and the ending is fairly predictable, but Eddie wants to publish it.  The author, Peter Kilrue, is a difficult man to find.  Eventually, Eddie does find him.  The ending of “Best New Horror” is controversial and fairly predictable.  (What can I say?  I liked it.)  I need to ruin the ending in order to discuss the points I had in mind, so here be spoilers: Eddie tracks Peter down in the middle of nowhere; Peter Kilrue’s mailbox decals have flaked away and they now read “KIL U.”  And that may be what happens to Eddie, who heads into Creepy House and quickly realizes that Kilrue is the kind of artist who WRITES WHAT HE KNOWS.  The creaky house is filled with weird people who like to chop what looks like liver when shirtless and who like to tie old women to beds with wire.  Eddie runs to his car, careful not to twist an ankle: “He had seen it happen in a hundred horror movies.”  Eddie remembers that his keys were in the jacket he gave to one of the Creepies.  The reader leaves him as Eddie is running away.  If anyone can elude homicidal maniacs, shouldn’t it be the guy who spends all of his time reading about them?

Mr. Hill is known primarily as a horror writer, but he seemingly refuses to be stifled by any artificial constraints.  Some people, after all, say “science fiction writer” or “romance writer” with a disappointed snarl.  Why must a genre classification be perceived as an indication of quality?  “The Lottery” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” are rockin’ stories…and they could be considered psychological horror.  “The Cold Equations” and Fahrenheit 451 are punch-to-the-gut narratives…even though they’re science fiction.  A third of the way through “Best New Horror,” Eddie Carroll editorializes about this sad perception of genre:

Among the cognoscenti, though, a surprise ending (no matter how well executed) was the mark of childish, commercial fiction and bad TV.  The readers of The True North Review were, he imagined, middle-aged academics, people who taught Grendel and Ezra Pound and who dreamed heartbreaking dreams about someday selling a poem to The New Yorker.

The conventions of craft are simply tools.  Even if you are writing a “literary” story, you would do well to borrow the tools of “horror” writers.  (Can you name any writers who are better at ratcheting up the tension in a narrative?)  Science fiction is a genre about examining new ideas and new technologies and deciding how they fit into ever-changing concepts of humanity.  Writers of “literary” fiction should definitely understand how folks like Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison view the world and the people on it.  I must confess that I have spent a lot of time thinking about this enforced dilemma.  Science fiction was my first love growing up and it has always bothered me when folks dismissed a book or a writer because they worked in a genre of some kind.  Stephen King is a top-flight writer, as capable with literary fiction as white-knuckle horror.  I read Diff’rent Seasons and The Bachman Books when I was really young and grew up protesting those who said Mr. King was only a vampires-and-women-with-telekinetic-powers kind of guy.  (A lot of my students don’t realize that Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption and It emerged from the same fertile mind.)  I’ll put the aforementioned Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury up against any poet with respect to their ability to create beautiful sentences.

Here’s a little chart that elucidates what different genres can teach us about writing craft:

Genre

What Writers in the Genre Can Teach Us

Action/Adventure The creation of compelling protagonists, descriptions of interesting action setpieces
Crime Simple but extremely descriptive language, an understanding of the fringes of the “real world”
Fantasy The depiction of elaborate worlds that are realistic and unrealistic at the same time
Horror How characters feel and act when they are in the greatest physical danger of their lives
Mystery/Detective The exploration of deviant psychology, the ramifications of violations of the social order
Romance What brings lovers together and what separates them
Science Fiction How humanity adapts and changes to ever-changing technology (or how it remains the same)
Western What it is like to occupy virgin territory, how to write characters who are alone quite a bit

“Best New Horror” also brings to mind two non-horror works: the Stephen King novella “The Body” and John Irving’s novel The World According to Garp.  Two points if you can guess what these three pieces have in common.  All three contain framed narrative.  In “Best New Horror,” Mr. Hill extensively summarizes “Buttonboy.”  Mr. King allows Gordie Lachance to tell the story of Lard Ass.  Mr. Irving’s book includes “The Pension Grillparzer,” the title character’s first novella.  Including such a framed narrative is a risk.  I’ll admit that I skipped “Grillparzer” the when I read Garp as a fourteen-year-old.  Why?  Because Mr. Irving was telling such a great story about such an interesting young man…and then he assigned me to read dozens of pages of a different story in a different font.  (No worries; I’ve long seen the error of my ways in that regard.)  I didn’t mind Lard Ass story in “The Body” because it fit into the story; what do teenage guys do around a fire but tell dirty or weird stories?

Mr. Hill, no doubt, knew that he HAD to tell the reader a lot of details about “Buttonboy.”  The story, after all, reflects upon Kilrue’s psychology and sets the protagonist into action.  Mr. Hill doesn’t waste your time; he describes the plot of “Buttonboy” in sentences that are at once short and declarative and chilling.  Our framed narratives should serve as an imperative part of our story; they shouldn’t seem like an accessory.

What Should We Steal?

  • Wear your genre badges proudly.  Successful genre writers are really demonstrating that they have exceptional skills in at least one facet of storytelling.  Romance writers, for example, have extreme insight into what people want to believe about love.  When last we see Mr. Hill’s narrator, he’s running for his life, buffeted by the knowledge he gleaned from all the stories he read about characters in the same situation.  Mr. Hill, it seems, is saying that understanding genre writing can save your life.
  • Ensure that your framed narratives work in the context of the bigger story.  Go right ahead: show your reader a poem that your character “wrote.”  Just make sure that you’re not holding up the procession of your larger narrative.

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