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.