I recently had to reread Joe Hill’s “20th Century Ghost.” I honestly could not remember if I had read it before. Certainly I knew the title, remembered the collection it was part of. I was fairly sure I had read the collection. My memory, however, is generally terrible, and I read a lot. A story has to press a lot of buttons to make it out of my general morass of half-remembered scenes and titles and characters and clever-sounding sentences.
But what struck me, two nights ago when I was rereading the story, was that it hadn’t pressed those buttons on the first go-round, but it sure as hell was now. 48 hours later and I still have a lingering bittersweet feeling; I still feel moved. Because the story moved me this time, while last time it was just a good ghost story in a good collection.
This is nothing new; I’m not trying to present it as a grand discovery. But it reminded me that the writer-story-reader relationship is never fixed. Our understanding, our perceptions of the story are always changing, and the story is always changing as a result, because the story does not exist without us. This short story, reread in my late 40s and in this political moment, now seemed an aching elegy to a kind of American-ness that we are losing, or perhaps lost a long time ago, or perhaps never had but only wanted to pretend we did.
It was also—it is also—a story about love but also decency, basic human decency, and my goodness we could use more of both in the world.