20th Century Ghosts
By Joe Hill, Introduction by Christopher Golden
William Morrow, 2005
I must let you know upfront that I am an aficionado of short stories and of ghost stories in particular, so my thoughts on 20th Century Ghosts are definitely colored by that. However, as a devotee of literature in general, I think I’d still end up digging this debut collection from Hill. Encompassing an incredibly wide range of emotions and providing a symphony’s worth of tones, the stories that make up this collection are thought-provoking, heart-rending, and fright-inducing by turns.
This is my first experience with Joe Hill, but I didn’t walk into this book entirely blind. I first heard about Hill through Powell’s (excellent) blog. Hill was favorably compared to Kelly Link—one of my favorite contemporary writers—so onto my “Wish List” this collection went… and stayed, like most things on my “Wish List.” However, I recently encountered the book again during a random stop at Downtowne Books and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pick it up.
The collection opens with “Best New Horror,” and though the story overall is excellent, I must admit it worried me. Joe Hill is the pseudonym for Stephen King’s son Joseph Hillstrom King, and “Best New Horror” is very much a story in the key of King. Though this clever story explores the horror genre from the metafictional viewpoint of a horror anthology editor, at its core, this is a conventional horror story with shades of Deliverance, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and King’s own It thrown in. I was worried that Hill’s desire to distance himself from his father’s legacy was all for naught…
Until the very next story; “20th Century Ghost” doesn’t fall even remotely into the horror genre. Though it’s a ghost story, it’s a ghost story in the tradition of Edith Wharton or Daphne du Maurier: upfront about its supernatural subject and using the conceit to tell an intimate narrative as opposed to being played for cheap frights. Nostalgic in tone, this is very much an elegy to an era when going to the movies was an event to be treasured, and one that didn’t empty your wallet for your trouble. This is a sweet story that stands in stark contrast to the collection’s opener. Again though: King himself wrote that sweet little story that turned into Stand By Me; was Hill just hitting his father’s classic notes?
The next story—“Pop Art”—pops that assumption like a finger poke to a child’s oversized Bubble Yum bubble. This is a story in the “new weird” or “kitchen sink magic realism” milieu popularized by writers like Aimee Bender, Judy Budnitz, and—your favorite and mine—Kelly Link. Narrated by a boy whose best friend is inflatable, tonally “Pop Art” might be compared to the boy’s life stories of Michael Chabon, but with the weird touch of Link. Again, it’s a leap in both mood and subject from the previous story, but the display of sheer range in these first three stories are wonderful to behold.
Hill hits many more emotional heights and depths in this fifteen story collection. Though there are many points of reference to established genres, writers, and milieus, Hill brings a fresh perspective to each narrative. For example, the 50s B-movie staple giant bug story “You Will Hear the Locust Sing” becomes a meditation on the awkwardness and alienation of adolescence in Hill’s hands. The folky mid-century feel of “The Widow’s Breakfast” twists a psychological knife in its ending that shifts the story’s perspective in a flash. The abundance of David Lynch imagery that is “My Father’s Mask” grounds its narrator, treating its weirdness as weird rather than matter-of-fact and allowing the reader to try and solve the mystery along with the protagonist.
Hill is at his strongest in his longer pieces that allow the protagonists to develop and inhabit the reader. The thriller “The Black Phone” could easily have been played for the easy fright in the way “Best New Horror” did, but Hill’s willingness to take his time results in a more nuanced kind of horror. “Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead”—in which the title character runs into his high school sweetheart while they both work as extras during the filming of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead—could easily have turned into a one-note gag. However, Hill doesn’t rely on his (admittedly ingenious) set-up to make the story; the carefully-crafted characters and subtle plot weave together to make a sweet-yet-sad narrative.
If there’s an over-arching theme to 20th Century Ghosts, it is that we make the old new again by imbuing it with our own experiences and transforming it with our own innovations. Though it is true in some sense that there are no new stories, that statement can be seen as completely false in the light of collections like this one. Despite calling on a century’s worth of inspirations, Hill crafts something innovative and uniquely him with this collection.
Downtowne Book Store