20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill


20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

Published by PS Publishing, 2005

ISBN: 1904619479 (Trade hardcover); 1904619460 (Paperback)

304 pages


Winner of the British Fantasy Award 2006 for Best Short Story (‘Best New Horror’);

Winner of the British Fantasy Award 2006 for Best Novel;

Winner of the Bram Stoker Award, Best Fiction Collection 2005.


Review by Hobbit, October 2006


Words have power.


Though this is a relatively short collection of stories, the strength of the tales inside it is such that they will leave the reader with flashbacks and images for days afterwards. They did me. In fact, days after reading I still remember vividly parts of its contents.


The fourteen stories included vary in scope, size and length. The book starts strongly with ‘Best New Horror’, which deals with the premise of Eddie Carroll, a jaded horror story editor who is sent a story so memorable that it jolts him out of his malaise. The problem is that the story, ‘Buttonboy’, is so horrific that many are sickened by it. Nevertheless, the editor sets off to find the mysterious writer, Peter Kilrue, and the story ends with something not expected. This was a very strong tale – filmic, for reasons that are best left until you’ve read the story, and references that a fan will get.


Reminiscent in tone of Bradbury and Serling, and another famous author more contemporary, this is a collection marinated in genre and societal references; the societal references help create that feeling of normality in stories that are anything but; the genre references, which though not necessarily important to get to enjoy the stories, add another dimension to their narrative.


Fritz Leiber once pointed out that the scary things are not always gothic castles and ghostly spectres, but the unusual things that are part of our normal everyday world. This is something that Joe has clearly understood here. Part Horror, part 1950’s SF B-movie, part surreal fantasy, the collection covers a broad range with skill, humour and, hell, an empathy for the genre’s long history.


There are common themes throughout the book. Most of the stories are interwoven around familial relationships– the bonds between mothers/fathers and their daughters/sons – and peer friendships, between the main character and their friends.


With such a variety of interests, not all of the stories worked for me as well as others. Least successful, though still pretty good, was You Will Hear the Locust Sing, a story with a Bradbury-esque title that clearly highlights a respect for the 1950’s B-Movies of mutant insects. Though initially amusing, by the end it was a little disappointing. Similarly, The Black Phone was a little creepy, though a weaker effort in such a strong collection. With a Weird Tales type ending that Richard Matheson would be proud of, though strong in feel, this one seemed a little too obvious to me.


My ‘weirdness award’ goes to My Father’s Mask, which I’m not sure I still understand, though it is very unsettling to read.  Rather Wicker Man to me.


Having said this, most of the stories are very strong. Most successful to me were Voluntary Committal, (the final novella in the book which sympathetically deals with Nolan Lerner’s brother, Norris, a boy with Aspberger’s Syndrome, who has a connection with The Twilight Zone), and in a Tales from the Crypt-type tale, Last Breath, which deals with a visit to a very unusual museum. I also really enjoyed The Cape, a story about Eric’s particular piece of clothing with a special power (or is it just self-belief?)


There are many stories like that in this book. It is a book that reads with deceptive ease, yet is supremely adept at creating ghosts. To illustrate this, Dead-Wood is a story that, in a page-and-a-half, creates an intriguing ‘what-if’ that is simultaneously beautiful, creepy, and haunting.


All good; but perhaps the biggest surprise to me was the story Pop Art, which deals with the story’s nameless central character and his relationship with his inflatable schoolfriend, Arthur Roth. (Pop Art, get it?) On first reading, the story reads as allegorical whimsy. It takes a writer of skill, which Hill clearly is, to turn that around so that the end of the story is a powerfully moving one. Forget the practical impossibility here – Joe makes the reader forget the impracticality to create this story with an ending that is almost painful to read.


To summarise, in this book Hill manages to combine hometown dreams and ambitions with the reality of failure, pathos, horror, humour and B-movie kitsch; all of which is achieved with surprising aplomb and an ease and skill that belies this being just labelled as ‘an author’s first book’.


Let’s go further than that. Many other long-published authors would kill to be as good as just one of these stories – it’s that good. And one of the best story collections I’ve read in years.


Haunting, resonant, melancholic – a collection that richly deserves its awards.


Hobbit, October 2006

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