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20th Century Ghosts / Joe Hill

th20thCentury_hc_c.jpgWilliam Morrow / October 2007
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

It was inevitable that this collection of ghost stories by Joe Hill, originally published by PS Publishing in the UK in 2005, would find a second life following the massive success of his New York Times bestselling Heart-Shaped Box novel earlier this year. And it’s a good thing that it has because it would seem a shame to have the gems of short stories contained within relegated to the small press in which many first appeared without the chance for mainstream consumption.

Much ado has been made out of Joe Hill being his own man, one (understandably) reluctant to suffer the comparison to his famous father. In this collection of fifteen tales, however, it’s difficult not to read one without thinking of the other when Hill takes on so many of his father’s favorite subject matters and thematic backdrops: baseball, the bonds between fathers and sons, the trials and tribulations of boyhood.

The collection starts off with “Best New Horror”, the story of an uninspired editor whose obsession with tracking down the author of a disturbing short story leads him afoul of some seriously deranged literary rednecks. Solid and engaging, “Best New Horror” is an odd choice to kick off an anthology of ghost stories, and it hints less at twentieth-century ghosts than it does at 1980’s slasher movies. Even “Buttonboy”, the short story within the short story here, hints at the misogyny of the slasher era, so that by the pull of the first chainsaw ripcord at an isolated farmhouse, it’s clear we’ve crossed into Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wrong Turn territory. “20th Century Ghost”, on the other hand, would have been the ideal leadoff – obviousness of its title aside. The story of a haunted movie theater and the young girl who haunts it, “Ghost” offers a true ghost story in the most traditional sense – one that Hill imbues with an epic feel in a mere twenty pages.

Whereas it took years for King to develop his knack for subtler stories that speak more to the human condition than to the anatomy of fear, Hill bypasses this learning curve altogether with “Pop Art”. Told here in a loving, fable-like narrative, this deeply affecting tale of a teenage boy and his inflatable friend will surprise. Hill nails the bittersweet nostalgia of that first true, best childhood friend. Anyone who can remember the loss of that childhood friend – the one who moved away or was tragically struck by childhood disease or whose presence simply faded over time – will be awestruck by Hill’s poignancy. The last thing one expects when reading a horror anthology is the warmth of their own tears rolling down their cheeks; don’t be surprised when your eyes well up reading the final pages of this remarkable, heartrending story.

Hill switches gears from childhood poignancy to adolescent anxieties in “You Will Hear the Locust Sing”, in which a teenage boy transforms into a giant locust and wreaks havoc on the town he is otherwise doomed to suffer. While immediately reminiscent of those 1950’s, radiation-era B-movie monsters, “Locust” has some serious underlying post-Columbine subtext that warns of kids pushed to the edge. Likewise, “Abraham’s Boys” warns of fathers pushing sons too far in their desire to have them carry on the family legacy in this expansion on the Van Helsing vampire mythos.

It’s back to ghosts in “The Black Phone”, a chilling tale of child abduction, ghostly revenge, and the resiliency of children’s spirits that will ring especially relevant in this age of Amber alerts. Hill expertly blends the harrowing realism of kidnapping with the spooky surrealism of an antique phone that transmits otherworldly calls.

The fine line between heroes and villains is explored in the next two stories – “In the Rundown” and “The Cape.” In the former, Wyatt is an aimless video store clerk who finds himself an accidental Good Samaritan and makes a shocking discovery. The reader realizes that he’s been tragically set-up, caught between two equally hopeless situations just like the fateful Little League play that left him trapped between first and second bases and seemingly derailed his future. In the latter, brotherly rivalry and the roles brothers are relegated to playing in each other’s lives take the form of a magical superhero cape that enables flight. Both are well-executed stories, if middling concepts.

“Last Breath” is by far the creepiest tale in the anthology, a unique and clever spin on the classic ghost story. A retired doctor traps the last breaths of his dying patients, bottling them and putting them on display in a macabre “museum of silence.” The story is unnerving and atmospheric, with the perfect Twilight Zone ending. “Dead-Wood”, on the other hand, is the least effective entry in the collection. The shortest of the stories in the collection, it gets reluctantly swallowed up in the middle and almost comes off as a mindless distraction that interrupts the flow. Proving again that placement of stories within an anthology is key, “Dead-Wood” would have been better served as an italicized introduction to either an individual story or the collection itself.

Every anthology has a story or two that never quite hits its mark; “The Widow’s Breakfast” is that story here. Killian, a homeless drifter who hops boxcars and relies on the kindness of strangers for sustenance, is taken in by a kindly widow who serves him up a hearty breakfast and gives him some of her dead husband’s warm clothes. The story chugs along nicely as another fine example of Hill’s talents in literary realism, with themes of loss central to the tale. Disappointingly, the ending derails an otherwise likable story with an incongruous hint of horror in the form of a ghoulish game being played by the widow’s daughters. The reader is jolted by the abrupt turn in mood and is left hankering for a story that never comes in a creepy scene that seems to exist solely to support the (admittedly) killer closing line.

Ghosts of past memories haunt the protagonist in “Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead”, a solid example of Hill’s ability to paint a literary fiction foreground against a horror-tinged background. When two ex-lovers unexpectedly meet on the 1977 film set of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, the specters of unrequited love come back for struggling actor Robert Conroy. A poignant tale of humans reconnecting and finding acceptance when life moves us in different directions, “Bobby Conroy” is both an engaging portrait of two people trying to sort through the distance of years and an obvious fan letter to the creator of the Night of the Living Dead film franchise.

Hill returns to the surrealism of Twilight Zone territory in “My Father’s Mask”. Imaginary games, creepy masks, and some decidedly villainous playing cards masquerading as people are at the center of this eerily effective story about the relationships between mothers and fathers and sons, with allegorical whispers of marital infidelity, divorce, and the perceptiveness of children.

The collection wisely closes with the haunting novella, “Voluntary Committal.” As if the final paper in a masters course in short story writing, “Committal” bridges all the gaps, incorporates all the lessons learned, and deftly blends horror and literary fiction in one last hurrah of a tale. Essentially a story about the bonds between brothers, simultaneously tenuous and unbreakable, and the devastating effects of schizophrenia on families, “Committal” skillfully balances between the eerie and the earnest. There are plenty of genuinely creepy moments here amongst the labyrinthine cardboard box forts that double as otherworldly portals into the unknown. With this imaginative and layered story, Hill easily steps out from behind any lineage shadows others might be liable to cast him in.

But wait. Like the surprise ending in a horror film, Hill hides one last tale in the acknowledgements section. “Scheherazade’s Typewriter” concerns a ghost in the machine – in this case the titular IBM Selectric – and the notion that ghosts write about the dead with great authority. Following a frustrated writer’s death, his trusty electric typewriter maintains his nightly writing ritual – three pages a night – and the results amaze his family. Toiling writers take heart: success on the bestseller list is only a death certificate away.

Fans of Heart-Shaped Box will no doubt enjoy discovering Joe Hill’s literary beginnings with the stories included in 20th Century Ghosts. Although uneven at times in theme, the collection nonetheless succeeds on the strength of Hill's uncanny observations of the human condition. Consider the precision with which he nails the solitude of adolescence in this passage from "The Cape":

It was misery to try and keep up with other kids, so I stayed inside after school and read comic books. I couldn't tell you who my favorite hero was. I don't remember any of my favorite stories. I read comics compulsively, without any particular pleasure, or any particular thought, read them only because when I saw one I couldn't not read it. I was in thrall to cheap newsprint, lurid colors, and secret identities. The comics had a druglike hold over me, with their images of men shooting through the sky, shredding the clouds as they passed through them. Reading them felt like life. Everything else was a little out of focus, the volume turned too low, the colors not quite bright enough.

Not every novelist makes a good short story writer; not every short story writer makes a good novelist. But Joe Hill proves he is adept at both, showing a literary maturity that belies his years and a promise of even better things to come with stories here like “Pop Art”, “Last Breath”, and “Voluntary Committal”. Fans can settle in for a long ride. Cynics can blame in on the genes.

Purchase Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts.

Posted on Monday, December 17, 2007 at 01:44PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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