Shedding the mantle of his father’s reputation, Joe Hill slowly built his name (har har) under that pseudonym. The quality of the stories so good, however, I wonder whether it was even necessary. Writing, it seems, is in his DNA. Bringing together the best fifteen stories from the earliest part of Hill’s career (plus a hideen, bonus story), 20th Century Ghosts (2005) is a varied collection, with highs and lows, that gives every indication of the writer “Hill” has become thirteen years later and influence of the legacy he grew up with.
The collection opening on its strongest entry, “Best New Horror” is meta-horror if such a thing exists. The story functions at three levels: pure fiction, fiction within fiction, and fiction in the context of reality (i.e. comes thisclose to the fourth wall). About a horror editor who encounters an odd submission for an anthology he is putting together, the story goes on to briefly traverse the theoretical underpinnings of horror as a genre and horror fandom, before ending on strong note that both satisfies the story as a whole while recognizing where horror resides in the current cultural context. All in all a very difficult trck to pull off, but done so with flying colors. Starting off a YA version of Kafka’s Metamorpheses, “You Will Hear the Locust Sing” tells of a teenager who eats a radioactive bug and becomes a giant, mutant grasshopper himself. Hill’s purpose in the story unclear, it’s possible he was attempting to address the school shooting issue in the US, but may be more of a portrayal of America’s dwindling domestic scene—or both or none at all.
A ghost tale seeming to highlight the American legacy of war (I easily could be wrong about this, also), “20th Century Ghost” tells of a post-WWII cinema haunted by a young girl. Told through the eyes of a young man who meets her after sneaking into the cinema one afternoon, it is, in fact, the influence she goes on to have over him where the story finds its heart. Admonition for greater tolerance and compassion captured in explicit, metaphorical form, “Pop Art” tells of a high school boy and his friend Arthur who is a blow-up doll. Constantly picked on and derided by bullies, Arthur lives an anxious life. Constantly having to worry about springing a leak or being outright punctured, the bullying and derision eventually draws to a head, and things go “pop” (sorry, couldn’t resist). I’m sure many will find “Pop Art” likeable given the strong degree of pity Hill generates for Arthur, but for me, this is in fact the story’s shortcoming: too obvious. But whatever…
A lo-fi Van Helsing story, “Abraham’s Boys” tells of the vampire hunter’s domestic life, and the troubles he has raising two teenage sons. Told through the eyes of the oldest son, it ends on a note many would not expect. A story in which Hill smacks reader sentiment left, then right, then back again, “In the Rundown” tells of malicious, learning-disabled Wyatt and his bad day. Fired from his job for reasons he doesn’t understand (but the reader does), he quickly becomes involved in a situation that sets the reader’s confidences spinning. (And is rightfully open-ended.)
What I appreciated most about the stories in 20th Century Ghosts is that Hill writes what’s natural. Where some writers squeeze in bits of the fantastic just to maintain the genre label, Hill adds the unreal only in germane fashion. As a result, there are several stories in the collection which are realist but attain more meaning for lacking the supernatural. Involving a baseball coach with psychological quirks and his son cut from the same cloth, “Better Than Home” tells of a boy trying to come to terms with his fears and phobias, and the “help” given him by his mother. What “Pop Art” captures in overt fashion, this story achieves in subtler form, and is more touching for it. Perhaps the most forced story in the collection, “Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead” is resurrection only in the metaphorical sense. About a failed comedian returning to his hometown to start again, running into his high school sweetheart at a George Romero movie shoot where both are playing zombie extras gives him a new perspective on life.
A straight-forward horror piece with a satisfying ending, “The Black Phone” tells of a twelve-year old boy who has been kidnapped, and is now held prisoner in an unknown basement. While very simple in premise, Hill does a great job escalating suspense, culminating in a high-five climax. Starting off John Knowles’ A Separate Peace and becoming the anti-Superman, “The Cape” tells of a boy who discovers a magic cape that allows him to fly. Rather than using his new found ability to fight crime, however, he finds other uses. A story with a bizarre, perhaps inexplicable ending (assuming Hill was going for something more than a rim shot or I missed something), “The Widow's Breakfast” tells of a hobo who jumps train and twists his ankle. Hobbling to the closest home, he is greeted by a widow, who, you guessed it, feeds him. She also clothes him, which is what leads to the bizarre ending. A short but chilling story, “Last Breath” tells of a family’s visit to the Museum of Silence where Dr. Alainger has been collecting people’s dying breaths in jars. The ending is not what one would predict. Closing on a relatively strong note, “Voluntary Committal” tells of a man looking back at his youth, particularly the developmentally challenged older brother he had, and the strange, inexplicable structures he would build in OCD fashion. While not possessing much of substance, Hill does a great job maintaining engagement through unexpected twists and turns of story.
It has its ups and downs, but 20th Century Ghosts remains a solid debut collection. Starting to fade as the collection draws to a close, stories like “The Cape”, “My Father’s Mask”, “Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead”, and “The Widow’s Breakfast” are not as strong and consistent as “Best New Horror”, “Better Than Home”, the title story, and “Abraham’s Boys”. Hill possessing a talent for portraying the viewpoint of teenage boys, ten of the sixteen stoires focus on male juveniles—from the personal and emotional troubles resulting from domestic issues at home to fart and masturbation jokes. Some of the stories are relatively straight-forward horror, but are always framed or developed in non-standard fashion, giving an element of needed surprise if they are to break away from stereotype. Human interest the core of the stories, ghosts, serial killers, etc. do exist, but serve a wider purpose, meaning readers (like myself) who switch off when seeing a slasher film-type material have something to ruminate upon, or at least an anchor to relate to.
The following are the sixteen stories collected in 20th Century Ghosts:
Best New Horror
20th Century Ghost
You Will Hear the Locust Sing
Better Than Home
The Black Phone
In the Rundown
The Widow's Breakfast
Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead
My Father's Mask
Acknowledgements (essay by Joe Hill)