20th Century Ghosts


Excited by my recent discovery of Joe Hill's novel Heart-Shaped Box, I took up his book of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts. The collection leads off with what is probably the weakest piece, and even this did not disappoint in the slightest. What a superb collection of stories and what a tremendous range the author exhibits!

Stories range from the ghastly (such as the lead-off tale "Best New Horror," to the sublime, "20th Century Ghosts," "Better than Home," "The Widow's Breakfast," and "Pop Art." In between are all shades of eerie and horrifying--from the Bradburyesque "Last Breaths" to the Kafkaesque story of Francis, the boy transmuted into a Locust.

There isn't a bad story in the collection, but I'll detail a few of my favorites. "Pop Art," is the unlikely tale of an unfortunate boy born with a genetic defect that skips generations--he's inflatable. "My Father's Mask," is a wild, creepy, eerie, unforgettable tale in the line of Harvest Home and Bethany's Sin with a big dollop of "The Lottery" mixed in. The imagery and trajectory of the story are utterly unexpected and entirely predictable at the same time and the mix sends the reader completely off-balance at every turn. "20th Century Ghosts" refers to the ghosts of the silver screen and a theater, haunted by one particular ghost, whose gift is the gift of a life related to cinema. Beautiful. "Voluntary Commital" tells the tale of a young boy who is gifted with the ability to build, and build he does--out of cardboard boxes he builds a bridge to otherwhere. This story has a distinctly Lovecraftian flavor, and for those well versed in the lore even makes mention of one of those famous lovecraftian locations. But it is also so well handled that it isn't simply one more Lovecraft pastiche. The authors knows the lore and uses it deftly.

While many of the pieces fall in the realm of supernatural fiction, some are surreal, such as the tale of Francis who wakes up to find himself tranmorgrified into a locust, "Pop Art," and "My Father's Mask." In addition there is straight fiction--"Better than Home," is the story of a boy and his relationship with his father. "The Widow's Breakfast" is about riding the rails in the depression, loss and a subtle kind of redemption offered on both sides of the exchange. And there is a tale of high-school sweethearts meeting on the set of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead--both poignant and sweet.

Joe Hill has talent and remarkable control over his material. While Heart-Shaped Box may be strong material to start with, 20th Century Ghosts allows an entrée into his oeuvre that may be more pleasing and have wider general appeal.

This story collection is highly recommended to those interested in supernatural fiction, baseball (which seems to obsess Mr. Hill as much as it does his father), or just plain good writing. I hope that Mr. Hill follows the great start made in these books with a great many more both "straight" and "genre." I know I am eagerly looking forward to the next.

Next stop: Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon's self-styled "Jews with Swords" tribute to the "Sword and Sorcery" genre. Although I rather suspect it may be lacking in the Sorcery realm.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on December 12, 2007 7:39 AM.

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