20th Century Ghosts: A prime collection of short fiction

Joe Hill 20th Century Ghostshorror book reviews Joe Hill 20th Century Ghosts20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. Good, now that’s out of the way. 20th Century Ghosts is a prime collection of short fiction. Some stories are horror, some are literary horror and some aren’t horror at all. Hill has a strong style, a distinctive voice, and a willingness to indulge in post-modernism. This means that the conclusions of some stories are left up to the reader. This is not the undisciplined writing of someone who can’t commit to a resolution, but a literary choice executed with intent and skill.  In “Best New Horror” and “In the Rundown,” readers must decide for themselves what comes after the final paragraph.

“Best New Horror” is a familiar tale, and a tasty mélange of tropes; bits of H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, The Hills Have Eyes, and even the Serial Killer Convention in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, all spiced with a sprinkling of sinister glee that makes the whole thing work.

“Pop Art” is one of the better stories about friendship and loss, with an original element perfectly introduced into the story. The story has resonance with the last novella in the book, “Voluntary Committal.” “The Black Telephone” is an exercise in desperation, with a palpable grounding in the real world.

“20th Century Ghost,” the title story, tells us a sweet tale about a decaying movie palace and a ghost that loves movies.

“You Will Hear the Locust Sing” blends Kafka with the 1950s vintage B-movie Them, about giant ants. I found the physical details to be spot-on, although I’m not sure I really understood the story.

By far the most surreal and disturbing work in the book is “My Father’s Mask.” I finished this story and thought, “Whoa, that’s shocking.” A day later when I was pulling weeds the story finally clicked for me and I thought, “Oh, my God! It’s going to happen again!” Because clearly, it is what always happens.

Terry Weyna recommended Joe Hill to me, and I have to thank her. I look forward to more of his work. I don’t know how well he manages the longer form, but Hill is a short-story master.

20th Century Ghosts — (2007) Imogene is young and beautiful. She kisses like a movie star and knows everything about every film ever made. She’s also dead and waiting in the Rosebud Theater for Alec Sheldon one afternoon in 1945… Arthur Roth is a lonely kid with big ideas and a gift for attracting abuse. It isn’t easy to make friends when you’re the only inflatable boy in town… Francis is unhappy. Francis was human once, but that was then. Now he’s an eight-foot-tall locust and everyone in Calliphora will tremble when they hear him sing… John Finney is locked in a basement that’s stained with the blood of half a dozen other murdered children. In the cellar with him is an antique telephone, long since disconnected, but which rings at night with calls from the dead…

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MARION DEEDS is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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4 comments

  1. I loved, loved, loved this collection. I knew nothing about Joe Hill when I read it, including the Stephen King connection, and thought I’d simply discovered a brilliant new writer — at least I was right about the latter. Really amazing stuff. It would be a perfect holiday gift for anyone who loves literary SF/F/H. “Best New Horror” is a tiny masterpiece, and “Pop Art” isn’t far behind — seems we loved all the same stories. Just amazing stuff.

    I’ve read Hill’s first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, and while I enjoyed it, it doesn’t have the magic and mystery that 20th Century Ghosts does. I own, but have not yet read, Horns, his second novel, and I’ve read several collected editions of Locke & Key, his comic, which is worth reading but still doesn’t meet the high standard of 20th Century Ghosts. Like father, like son? I’ve always thought Stephen King was great at shorter lengths, up to and including the novella.

  2. I tried for a while to say something other than what Terry said, but what she said is true for me as well; and easy to repeat. I loved everything about this collection. “Pop Art” was my favorite and “Voluntary Committal” isn’t far behind.

    Next is my ‘ditto’ of Terry’s second paragraph…

    Heart-Shaped Box was a big-ole splat for me; I didn’t get much out of it at all. Haven’t gotten around to Horns yet, but I think I own a copy. Hill is indeed one of the stronger short story writers out there.

  3. I don’t even like short stories that much, but clearly he is a master at the shorter form. I will hunt down a copy of Heart-Shaped Box when I have time one of these days.

  4. I think my library has this on audio. I will CHECK IT OUT!
    I also have a copy of Horns.

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