In celebration of the month of October, I’ll be sharing 31 of my favorite spooky, eerie and creepy stories, one per day. The stories will range over an array of genres: horror, suspense, science fiction, mysteries and dark fantasy.
The October Country
…that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…
— Ray Bradbury
Pop Art by Joe Hill
20th Century Ghosts
“My best friend when I was twelve was inflatable.”
In the great debate about opening sentences, Hill’s zinger to kick off Pop Art ranks pretty high on the list. The line sounds, perhaps, like the start of a sleazy joke, but Hill undercuts that expectation with the preposition “when I was twelve.” It’s hard to imagine sleazy scenarios between a twelve-year-old and a blow-up doll (well, hard for me anyway, maybe not for you).
Hill makes clear immediately that the line isn’t a joke, nor is it some cheap tactic employed only to nab your attention.
“His name was Arthur Roth, which also made him an inflatable Hebrew, although in our now-and-then talks about the afterlife, I don’t remember that he took an especially Jewish perspective.”
So yes, Pop Art is a story quite literally about an inflatable boy (the titular Art) and his daily struggles with being, well, inflatable.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this entire premise would fall apart. The opportunities for slapstick are numerous, and Hill makes good use of them throughout, but the line between pathos and ridicule is thinner here than in most stories. And there is a constant danger that the reader may feel that the tale is only a long, extended joke. It’s a testament to Hill’s narrative skill that amongst all the laughs the most prevalent feeling is a kind of aching sorrow.
What was it Mark Twain said? The secret source of humor is sorrow.
Pop Art explores the development and eventual end of the friendship between our narrator and the inflatable Arthur Roth. It fits squarely within the Coming of Age genre, but given Arthur’s nature it is one of the oddest of such stories ever penned.
Being inflatable, Art deals with a host of issues the rest of us simply never face: bumping into something sharp can literally kill him; he can’t talk, because he doesn’t have a mouth; a strong wind can blow him away. Clearly an outsider, Art is tormented at school. Indeed, our narrator first befriends Art after coming to his defense against a group of students who have decided to toss Art up in the air and knock him around.
Adults are suspicious of Art too. Our narrator’s father, for example, expresses his concern like this:
“How come he’s always mincing around?” my father asked. “Is he a fairy or something?”
“No, Dad. He’s inflatable.”
“Well, he acts like a fairy,” he said. “You better not be queering around with him up in your room.”
Where Hill truly succeeds, though, is in humanizing the inhuman Art. The entire tale hinges upon his ability create empathy for what is, essentially, an inflatable doll. And he does this effectively by letting us into Art’s dreams, desires, disappointments, and yearnings. Such as Art’s fervent wish for flight.
I want to be an astronaut…I’m the ideal spaceman. I belong in orbit.
And, obviously, by making careful and incisive use of humor, such as when Art explains how at his birth the rabbi made an exception when it came time for the circumcision.
Like all true coming of age stories, Pop Art is about the losses we endure in order to grow up. Art was never really made for this world, and eventually he chooses to pursue his dreams of flight.
I want to see if it’s true. If the sky opens up at the top.
Generally, when we talk about great stories, we toss about a whole slew of adjectives to describe their greatness. And over time, most of those adjectives seem to pale, and the story loses much of its allure. But some stories remain powerful and moving, and they stay with us, and they engage readers generation after generation.
It may be early to declare which stories in our current era will do that. But I’m placing my bets on this one.
More October Stories
For the month of October, you can download
Tyler Miller’s The Other Side of the Door
In celebration of my favorite month, I’m giving away my collection The Other Side of the Door. These are stories inspired by so many of my favorite writers: Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson.
Stories like the award-winning Til Death Do Us, about a man who believes he’s gotten away with his wife’s murder…at least until her severed finger is delivered to him in a box. Somebody knows the truth…
Or another first-place winner: Not Dead, Not Even Past, the story of a small-town sheriff confronted with a string of suicides he can’t explain. Each of the victims share a disturbing trait: no matter how they died, all of them have lungs full of water.
I loved working on these stories, and I truly believe that you’ll enjoy reading them just as much as I enjoyed writing them. Check them out. For the entire month, they’re free. What have you got to lose?
Except a little sleep…
Artwork above from 10th Anniversary Edition of 20th Century Ghosts