Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts has been heralded as one of the finest horror collections of the past fifteen years, and it easily deserves its reputation. There’s not a bad – nor even a mediocre – story among them, and I have an embarrassment of riches in choosing which one to talk about. So let’s take a look at a reinterpretation of a character you’re already familiar with: Abraham van Helsing.
Max and Rudy live with their father Abraham in the country, somewhere on the east coast of the USA; scandal forced them out of Amsterdam, and when Abraham traveled to New York for a teaching post he was turned down. When the story starts the sun is setting and Max and Rudy are hurrying home. Their father always tells them to be home by sundown, but their neighbor, Mrs. Kutchner, waylays them and asks for help, and Rudy stays behind. When Max returns Abraham is merely irritable, berating the boy’s foolishness for staying out so late, hinting darkly at enemies he never articulates. But by the time Rudy finally comes through the door, the sun has all but set.
“What time-?” Max heard the steely snap of his father opening his pocket watch. He sighed. “Well. Your concern for Mr. Kutchner, I admire.”
“Oh it – it was nothing –” Rudy said, putting his foot on the first step of the porch.
“But really, you should worry more about your own well-being, Rudolf,” said their father, his voice calm, benevolent, speaking in the tone Max often imagined him employing when addressing patients he knew were in the final stages of a fatal illness. It was after dark and the doctor was in.
Rudy said, “I’m sorry, I’m –”
“You’re sorry now. But your regret will be more palpable momentarily.”
The quirt came down with a meaty smack, and Rudy, who would be ten in two weeks, screamed. Max ground his teeth, his hands still digging in his hair; pressed his wrists against his ears, trying vainly to block out the sounds of shrieking, and of the quirt striking at flesh, fat and bone.
‘Protagonist Centered Morality’ is a term for an intriguing phenomenon by which we forgive the hero for all kinds of deeds because they’re being done for a good purpose. We forgive the fleeing good guys for smashing through windows, stealing cars, even shooting into crowded environments, because we know the bad guys will catch them if they do not. In the original Dracula novel Van Helsing commits a number of crimes, ranging from breaking into private property to corpse desecration, and this is not only necessary but a cause for celebration. Now that modern audiences are well familiar with the tropes surrounding vampires, the section where Van Helsing appears has become cathartic to the point where he’s now an audience surrogate: these characters have been blundering around for half the book, unable to recognize they’re in a vampire story, and at last there’s someone who knows what’s going on!
But Abraham’s Boys is told from the perspective of Max. He doesn’t believe in vampires, doesn’t even think about them; their only mention is in Abraham’s dialogue. And once you remove the excuse of vampires, Abraham’s actions stop being heroic. He beats his children for coming home late. He openly talks about whether he will need to kill Mrs. Kutchner for no other reason than her skin is pale. When the boys break into Abraham’s locked desk they find a photograph of a decapitated woman, neck stuffed with garlic, stake through the heart.
When you remove the vampires, all that remains of Abraham van Helsing is a serial killer.
Abraham’s Boys by Joe Hill
Availability: print, e-book
Word count: 6,600
First published: The Many Faces of Van Helsing, 2004
20th Century Ghosts, collection, 2005, PS Publishing
By Blood We Live, edited by John Joseph Adams, 2009, Night Shade Books