20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
Reviewed by Chris Bolton
Last winter I was disappointed by Joe Hill's debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, which I'd wanted to read even before the author was a guest blogger for Powells.com -- and yes, even before I learned he is Stephen King's son. The premise was just so deliciously perfect: an "aging death-metal rock god" buys a ghost on eBay. Mayhem ensues.
It sounded like a fun thrill-ride, the sort of novel that really could be, to quote the publisher's copy, "a masterwork brimming with relentless thrills and acid terror." Despite the accolades from the likes of Scott Smith and Neil Gaiman, not to mention fawning reviews from the press, the novel just didn't work for me.
Hey, it happens. I'll spare you the spoiler warning and just note that by the time the plot hit the road, my suspension of disbelief was fully revoked.
Now, however, I find myself reconsidering that earlier position and thinking about rereading Heart-Shaped Box.
No, I'm not giving in to peer pressure or doubting my own opinion. But after reading 20th Century Ghosts, the collection of Joe Hill's short stories, I find myself utterly spellbound by the author. Maybe there was something I just didn't "get" about Box that I'll pick up a second time through.
Regardless of how my revisitation goes, I have no doubt that 20th Century Ghosts will make my Top Five list of the year's best books.
Originally published in the U.K. two years ago by PS Publishing (and winner of the Bram Stoker Award for best collection in 2005), this is the first U.S. edition of Ghosts -- and a genuine treat for fans of... well, here I'm at a loss. While Hill has the blood of Stephen King coursing through his veins, anyone expecting Night Shift Redux will be gravely disappointed. Hill's work hews much closer to the stories of Neil Gaiman -- but here, too, comparison fails me.
I'm left with no recourse but to declare Joe Hill a genuine original.
The stories in 20th Century Ghosts contain many tropes that will be familiar to readers of horror and dark fantasy -- ghosts, vampires, giant insects, cannibalistic maniacs with knives -- and yet there is an X-factor that marks each story as truly unique and startlingly original.
Perhaps Hill himself best describes his approach, in this excerpt from the opening tale, "Best New Horror."
[Eddie Caroll] didn't finish most of the stories he started anymore, couldn't bear to. He felt weak at the thought of reading another story about vampires having sex with other vampires. He tried to struggle through Lovecraft pastiches, but at the first painfully serious reference to the Elder Gods, he felt some important part of him going numb inside, the way a foot or hand will go to sleep when the circulation is cut off. He feared the part of him being numbed was his soul.
At the end of this passage, I wanted to stand up and cheer. Gaiman once described horror as an ingredient rather than a meal, and I couldn't agree more. As an ingredient, it's pungent and powerful and somewhat addicting. But too many bad chefs have tried to turn it into an entire seven-course feast, with wildly diminished results.
Later in the same story, Hill issues a stirring call to arms:
Although the ending was more John Carpenter than John Updike, Caroll hadn't come across anything like it in any of the horror magazines....It concerned itself with tortured family relationships, shitty jobs, the struggle for money. Carroll had forgotten what it was like to come across the bread of everyday life in a short story. Most horror fiction didn't bother with anything except rare bleeding meat.
Is this a mission statement? Prophecy? Or merely a sly allusion to Hill's own approach to a genre that must have seemed overly familiar to him since... well, birth?
If this is, indeed, the rationale for Hill's work, based on the results witnessed herein, he has succeeded beautifully. Whatever horrors Hill explores (sometimes with a palpable, macabre glee that must live in his genes) are tempered by a recognizable, often staggering humanity that far too many horror writers completely ignore (and, I submit, many mainstream fiction writers aim for and completely miss).
Fans of vampire lore will be heartened to learn that "Abraham's Boys" is a pseudo-sequel to Bram Stoker's Dracula, depicting the offspring of vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing. What Hill does with this story, however, is so wholly unexpected and bracingly distinctive that it will surprise even the most dedicated Stoker fan, and delight readers who cannot bear to sit through yet another tired retread of the vampire trope.
"20th Century Ghost" is as heartbreaking a story as I've read. It will penetrate straight to the heart of film lovers and fans of the supernatural -- and if you qualify for both, as I do, it will be pure ecstasy. The next time someone complains that an emotionally honest story can't be written in the so-called "horror genre," I'll show her this one and watch her mind change before my eyes.
Or "Pop Art," which is almost indescribably offbeat and magnificently devastating -- and a perfect example of why Hill is difficult to classify. The story begins with an inflatable boy named Art, a set-up so transparently literary that I groaned inwardly when I read it. Despite my misgivings, I persevered, and was richly rewarded by a surprisingly effective tale that manages to be sentimental but not cloying, and is genuinely touching. I read it on a train to Seattle and was so moved by its final words that I couldn't shake the story -- or Art, himself -- for days.
"The Cape" takes the tropes of the classic superhero origin story and spins them in a direction that is genuinely affecting -- and leads to one of the most truly shocking endings I've read in ages.
Hill puts his own delicious spin on the serial killer genre in "The Black Phone," nicely taking the piss out of those overly romanticized psychos who have littered crime fiction since a guy named Harris introduced a guy named Hannibal.
There is a real danger in overhyping a book before it's been published. My enthusiasm for Scott Smith's The Ruins led to some strong responses from those who weren't as taken with the book as I was (and am). To each their own, of course, and I make no guarantees that you'll be as taken with 20th Century Ghostsas I was.
However, as short story collections go, I'm a tough sell. I've finished very few of them, and almost never in chronological order -- usually jumping around, sampling opening paragraphs, waiting for something to grab me. 20th Century Ghosts grabbed me with its first story and refused to let go. I read the entire book straight through, much like a novel, and would have started right back at the beginning if my pile of unread bedside reading weren't threatening to topple onto me as I sleep.