Bobby didn’t know her at first. She was wounded, like him. The first thirty to arrive all got wounds. Tom Savini himself put them on.
Her face was a silvery blue, her eyes sunken into darkened hollows, and where her right ear had been was a ragged-edged hole, a gaping place that revealed a lump of wet red bone. They sat a yard apart on the stone wall around the fountain, which was switched off.
So begins Joe Hill’s most recent story (the only one I’ve seen to be published after 20th Century Ghosts). He didn’t have to do it this way. He could have swapped the paragraphs around, started with a poker face and then given us a little jolt. If the urge occurred to him, it is to his credit that he resisted it, but it might not ever have been on the table. Graham Sleight, reviewing Hill’s collection, rightly observed that he demonstrated a “mastery of the rhetoric of endings”; but in truth most of Hill’s work has that feeling of close control, from the very first sentence.
You could describe this as stage-managing the elements of a story, and it’s never been more appropriate than here. As the presence of Tom Savini hints, we are on the set of George Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead, back in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, circa 1975. Bobby is a down-on-his-luck comedian turned actor, back home after failing to break the Big Apple. The girl sitting next to him, he suspects and hopes, is Harriet Rutherford, who co-captained the Die Laughing Comedy Collective with Bobby back in their school days. His intuition is correct, but to start with she bluffs him, in exactly the way that Hill didn’t try to bluff us. And then she confesses, and they hug, and for about fifty words everything seems a-ok.
Hill has demonstrated a knack for sentiment without sentimentality, however—as in the sublime “Pop Art”—and in this story he does so again, hinting at and then closing off the easy routes to emotion. Harriet has a kid, Bobby jnr, but he wasn’t named after Conroy. Harriet’s married to Dean; Bobby thinks it’s because Dean’s an easy audience, but in fact it’s because he’s a good guy. And Bobby and Harriet were never high school sweethearts, only high school never-quites. Their reunion awkwardness turns out to mean that nothing’s changed:
And for a moment they were both smiling, a little foolishly, knees almost touching. They had never really figured out how to talk to each other. They were always half-on-stage, trying to use whatever the other person said to set up the next punch-line.
It’s noticeable that the story gives itself several cues—points at which you think, Aha, I know what sort of story this is going to be—and then refuses them. The above is one; since they’re both literally half-on-stage for the whole of the story, we think this is going to be a story about them learning their lines. In addition, although the story happens at a time and place that probably only a writer versed in the history of horror could pull together with such apparent ease, it never becomes itself a horror story. Nothing terrible happens, and nothing magical either. The film set is just a set, and playing dead inevitably turns out to be a lot like playing alive, for Bobby; either way it mostly involves waiting around for his number to come up. And similarly, although both Bobby and Harriet are funny people, it’s not a comedy. They tell jokes to each other, not to us.
That, perhaps, is the key to controlling this sort of tale. Hill lets us pretend that we’re not reading the story that, deep down, we know we are; he makes us complicit in his sleight-of-hand, and in so doing lets us give ourselves permission to be surprised, and moved. And when it matters, he doesn’t pull his punches: the bitter moments are properly sharp, the sweet moments properly soft, the gory moments (because c’mon, Dawn of the Dead) properly unpleasant. They all hit us where it counts. Bobby Conroy comes back from the dead, all right, but not for brains: for the heart.