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20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
Review by Andrew Brooks
William Morrow Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780061147975
Date: 01 October 2007 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

The publication of author Joe Hill's novel Heart-Shaped Box brought about two things: instant praise from critics and fellow authors alike, and his outing as horror icon Stephen King's son. His latest, 20th Century Ghosts, gives notice that though he is his father's son, Hill is not content to merely sit in King's shadow. After finishing the third story in the collection, "Pop Art", I found myself re-energized as a reader. It's been awhile since I've read anything that's reminded me on so many levels why I fell in love with books and stories to begin with. This guy's a great writer, and 20th Century Ghosts is a wonderful collection that shines.

One of Hill's strengths is his fine characterization. While not all the tales in 20th Century Ghosts are straight horror (some may be best described as fantasy, albeit with a darker slant), he infuses those that are with more dread than gore. In the story "Best New Horror" a jaded horror editor tracks down a reclusive writer who's renewed his belief in the genre. While Hill definitely paints some disturbing, bloody images the story is not beholden to them. Rather it's about the main character remembering why he loved the disturbing, bloody stuff in the first place. It's a great introduction to what follows in 20th Century Ghosts, as the majority of the tales left me with a feeling similar to what Hill describes in the nearly poetic last paragraph of "Best New Horror". "Abraham's Boys" relates the story of two boys who believe their father may be delusional and that what he's drilled into their heads, that vampires are real, is a dangerous fantasy that might cost one or both boys their lives. It reminded me of the film Frailty, but has a special twist that I won't spoil. Both "Best New Horror" and "Abraham's Boys" achieve their sense of dread because Hill creates characters we believe in and root for. There are no cardboard cutouts set up merely to be struck down or dismembered, and any horror fan knows that's rare. Hill's earlier works (which were mainly literary fiction) serve him well in avoiding the usual clichéd characters of the genre.

But those seeking mainly horror stories, or ghost stories as the title would imply, should be warned. Hill's tales jump from genre to genre, when they're not melding one into the other, and this collection has more to offer than just chainsaw-welding maniacs (although it has a few of those too). In fact my favorite story in the bunch isn't rooted in horror or dark fantasy at all. "Pop Art" is fantastical, though, and deeply moving. I've heard rumors that it's being made into a movie, and if that's true I hope it only serves to give Joe Hill exposure to those who haven't yet read anything he's written. It centers on an inflatable boy named Arthur Roth, Art for short, and is one of the best short stories I've ever read. After finishing it I immediately reread "Pop Art", and the effect was no less wonderful and heartbreaking as it was the first time. It showcases the great range of Hill's storytelling ability and let me know I was in the hands of a future master. Of whichever genre he's writing in.

The whole of the collection sits between "Pop Art" and "Best New Horror" as far as what one can expect. The title piece "20th Century Ghosts", while ultimately being a ghost story at heart, might be termed a love story as well. "You Will Hear the Locust Sing" has a lot in common with the old '50s atomic monster moves, but from the monster's perspective. "The Cape" is for anyone who's ever dreamed of flying; the ending, at least for me, was very unexpected and chilling. The last story in the book (if you don't count the one Hill slips into the Afterword, a good reason to read that if you usually just skip those) is "Voluntary Committal". It has shades of Lovecraft and is another one that I hope someday makes it to the big screen. The premise is fascinating and, as in all of Hill's stories, much deeper than what's seen at first glance. After "Pop Art" it was another favorite from the 15 (not including the one hidden in the Afterword) short stories compiled in 20th Century Ghosts.

While I enjoyed some more than others, I don't think there's a weak one in the bunch. I cannot recommend Joe Hill's latest enough, and I can't help but get excited over whatever he sets himself to next.

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