20th CENTURY GHOST
by Joe Hill
Background: I found this in my Mammoth Book of the Best New Horror anthology as the story picked from the 2002 edition. It had first been published the year before in a small literary magazine and was actually submitted after the anthology was already closed, but the editor decided to give the new writer who he’d never heard of a try. It wasn’t until a few years later that the editor learned that Joe Hill had quite a famous father: Stephen King.
What it’s about: Alec runs the dying Rosebud theater, but he’s not alone… Imogene Cilchrist is the local ghost of the theater, a pretty young girl who is fascinated by movies and will occasionally show up to watch them. He first saw her as a teenager when he snuck in and ended up at a screening of Fantasia.
It turns out the girl died in the theater while watching The Wizard of Oz and was quite upset that she never got to see the end, so she kept coming back despite her obvious deadness. Alec, dealing with his brother’s death in the war overseas, becomes obsessed with the girl and the theater, gets a job there, and eventually comes to own the Rosebud.
But he is getting old, and the theater is too, until he gets some help from a famous old friend who also saw the Imogene, and they manage to revive it. Only then is Alec able to find peace.
Why it will keep you up at night: The descriptions are really what make this story. The plot is simple, and my explanation of it may seem a bit dull. But the way we meet Imogene, who is both captivating and creepy, and the iconic images of the movie theater keep the story going. The structure of the story is interesting, starting with the present, then giving us a long flashback to when Alec first saw Imogene, and then coming back to the present; I think it works well for the tale.
One part that caught my attention was the description of Fantasia. Just from the way Alec talks about the “wavering skirl of violins, rising and falling in swoops, and then a series of menacing bursts from the brass section,” I knew that he was hearing Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain (which you might recall was my #2 pick of the Top Ten Pieces of Classical Music to Listen to on a Dark and Stormy Night). The animation that goes with the music is perfect: “the dead were rising from their graves, an army of white and watery spectres pouring out of the ground… A square-shouldered demon, squatting on a mountain-top, beckoned them.”
Certainly I’m biased towards this part because I love that piece and that clip from Fantasia, but there is something about the story as a whole that stuck with me: the poignance, the creepiness, the tragedy…