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20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
4.5
Book Name: 20th Century Ghosts
Author: Joe Hill
Publisher(s): PS Publishing / HarperCollins
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book / eBook
Genre(s): Horror / Ghost Stories
Release Date: October 16, 2007

Looking for something different, brilliant, and deeply disturbing to read for Halloween? You need look no further than 20th Century Ghosts, a short-story collection by Joe Hill aka Stephen King’s son. It’s one of my all-time favorite books, and definitely my favorite short-story collection. I’m not big on short stories for the most part – I’m a novel gal – but when a friend recommended this when I asked for something scary to read, I almost literally could not put it down.

Reviewing this selection is a bit of a stretch for a fantasy forum: to me, it’s 99% horror and 1% fantasy. However, it won the British Fantasy Award for Best Collection (and Best Short Story for Best New Horror), and the last entry in the collection, Voluntary Committal, won the 2006 World Fantasy Award for Best Novella. So I figure if these prestigious fantasy awards consider it fantasy, then I can get away with reviewing it for Fantasy-Faction. And anyway, sometimes it’s difficult to draw the line between fantasy and horror. Regardless, I’ll hope you’ll give it a try if you enjoy a good ghost story, or some downright chilling horror.

Joe Hill is better known these days for his novels, Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, than he is for this collection of short stories. I disliked both novels (for me, his protagonists are extremely unlikable), and I’m glad I read 20th Century Ghosts first, because otherwise I would have never picked it up. Ghosts did earn him considerable literary acclaim when it was published in 2005, especially in England, and it was all based on its own merit. Joe Hill did not “come out” as Stephen King’s son until 2007, after Variety broke his cover in 2006. This review is based on the US and UK reprint (2007) which contains one extra story, making the collection a total of fifteen stories. I’ll start with my favorites.

Best New Horror is a story within a story. When the editor for the Best New Horror anthology receives Buttonboy, the “rudest, most awful thing he had ever read,” he has to have it for that year’s publication, and we readers get a bonus story in the detailed synopsis of Buttonboy. And when the editor tracks down the author, the two stories merge into an extremely disturbing climax.

20th Century Ghosts is worthy as the title story: elegant and chilling, it tells the story of Imogene Gilchrist, a nineteen-year-old girl who dies in the Rosebud Theater in 1945 during The Wizard of Oz. For decades, she appears to various theater-goers, talking to them while a stream of blood flows from her nose.

Pop Art isn’t a horror story at all, but it’s certainly absurd, and I adored it. It has no pretensions as it begins with the sentence, “My best friend, when I was twelve, was inflatable.” Arthur Roth is a four-ounce boy made out of plastic and filled with air. As he has no mouth, he communicates via a pad of paper around his neck and crayons in his pocket – ballpoint pens would be too dangerous, you see. His notes to his friend are hilarious, and what works is the fact that no one finds this inflatable boy odd. A bully in class writes to him, when Arthur tells him in a note to stop throwing thumbtacks at him, “You make trouble, and there won’t be enough of you left to patch a tire.” Absurd existentialism at its best.

The Black Phone is another example of classic horror, when a kidnapped boy discovers the antique phone in his cell connects to the voices of his predecessors: murdered children. Voluntary Committal, the 1% of the collection that can be considered fantasy, tells the story of an odd boy who builds cardboard tunnels that lead to other worlds. Another story containing no horror or supernatural elements is Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead. If I had to pick one favorite story in this collection, this would be it, mostly because of its unconventional and thoroughly clever setting. A man hooks up with an old flame on the set of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead when they’re cast as zombie extras.

These next few are close runners-up. You Will Hear the Locust Sing is a viscerally disturbing story about a bug-eating kid that wakes up one morning as a giant locust. The amazing, gory and believable detail is what makes that story work, reminiscent of The Fly remake. Abraham’s Boys is a fresh and clever take on Dracula: the Van Helsing boys get a rude awakening when they discover what their dad does for a living. The Cape has a premise as simple as its title: two brothers discover a magical cape that actually makes them fly. But at its heart it is a tale of corruption and jealousy. And The Last Breath is a fun quickie about what happens to a non-believer in a museum containing the “final exhalations of famous people” in glass bottles fitted with stethoscopes.

I found only five stories out of fifteen disappointing, shaving a half-star off my review. In the Rundown is certainly disturbing, but its protagonist, like the ones in Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, is too unlikable, and therefore unsympathetic. Better Than Home is a story about a boy, his dad, and baseball. It’s endearing but dull. Dead-Wood is one page long. It’s about tree ghosts. Yeah. I suppose there’s a deep and thoughtful commentary here about cutting down trees, but… The Widow’s Breakfast is also dull, about a drifter taken in by a widow. My Father’s Mask is too abstract and bizarre for me. A boy goes to a cabin in the woods with his parents. There’s a lot of mask-wearing, playing-card people, and a creepy appraiser. I’m probably missing another deep and thoughtful message, but I’m not sure it’s worth discovering.

Unfortunately, Joe Hill declined my request for an interview with Fantasy-Faction, via his agent. At least it was a polite rejection, and now he probably won’t change his mind since I just stated how much I didn’t like his novels. I hope someday he decides to revisit short stories. So far, I’m the only one I’ve met who calls Joe Hill my favorite short-story writer.

I hope you’ll give 20th Century Ghosts a chance, and that it keeps you up at night. Happy Reading and Happy Halloween!

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Rating: 10.0/10 (5 votes cast)
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill, 10.0 out of 10 based on 5 ratings
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One Comment

  1. Well, I disagree with you on the subject of Hill’s novels — I have not yet read “Heart-Shaped Box,” but I thought “Horns” was terrific.

    We’re definitely in agreement on the subject of “20th Century Ghosts,” however. It’s great from start to finish. My personal fave is “Pop Art,” with “20th Century Ghost” a close second — I work in a movie theatre, so that one has a little extra meaning for me!

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