20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
In the run up to the convention we’re attending this week my better half @MadNad has indulged her latest passion… some fella called Joe Hill.
Imogene is young, beautiful, kisses like a movie star, and knows everything about every film ever made. She’s also dead, the legendary ghost of the Rosebud Theater.
Arthur Roth is a lonely kid with a head full of big ideas and a gift for getting his ass kicked. It’s hard to make friends when you’re the only inflatable boy in town.
Francis is unhappy, picked on; he doesn’t have a life, a hope, a chance. Francis was human once, but that’s behind him now.
John Finney is in trouble. The kidnapper locked him in a basement, a place stained with the blood of half a dozen other murdered children. With him, in his subterranean cell, is an antique phone, long since disconnected . . . but it rings at night, anyway, with calls from the dead. . .
I shall be attending the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, where I will be one of a few lucky souls to share a room with Joe Hill and Peter Crowther in a unique opportunity to discuss the 2005 collection, 20th Century Ghosts. Here is my review of the book that will be under discussion at this event.
Best New Horror – the first story is a story about a story. Eddie Carroll, the editor of a horror magazine, goes to great lengths to track down the elusive author of a controversial story. This story is distinctly creepy, and I confess I found myself wanting to read a full version of Buttonboy
20th Century Ghost – An atmospheric piece about a crumbling movie theatre that has a resident ghost. It has a nostalgic feel to it, and harkens back to the golden age of movie theatres. As the theatre falls into disrepair, what is to become of its aged owner and its longest visiting patron?
Pop Art – Hands down my favourite story in the collection. The opening line made me laugh out loud. “My best friend when I was twelve was inflatable”. In fact, there were several moments of witty dialogue that made me smile, and others that made me tear up. Hill’s writing soars in this peculiar story about an inflatable boy. Topics of bullying, friendship and disabilities are at the fore in this sweet and sad tale.
You Will Hear The Locust Sing – A bizarre tale of a boy who wakes to find he has turned into an insect. For me personally, this was the ickiest story among the collection, and aptly demonstrates why Hill is a leading horror writer. *shudders*
Abraham’s Boys –With their mother deceased and their father stern and distant, unwilling to relinquish his old-world ways and fears, the two sons of Abraham Van Helsing learn of their legacy and what it means to be a vampire hunter.
Better Than Home – Set around a baseball game, this story should be my least favourite because it involves a lot baseball description, a game I know very little about, but actually I loved it. It’s a very sweet tale about the relationship between a father and son. I could see this playing out in my mind’s eye, and would love to see this story expanded and even made into a film.
The Black Phone – A dark tale with a hint of the supernatural. A boy is trapped in a basement, a phone in the room disconnected and useless… until it rings.
In The Rundown – For me, this story was the most unsettling. I actually found it quite hard to read. It was brilliant, terrifying, and wretched.
The Cape – A young boy and his brother play at superheroes, but someone always has to play the super villain. A sci-fi tale of sibling rivalry.
Last Breath – This story starts of dark and strange, and ends even darker. A young family visit a museum where the curator has collected the last breaths of the dying.
Dead Wood – A short but intriguing piece of flash fiction that reads like a letter.
The Widow’s Breakfast – In interesting tale, but all too brief, of a homeless man shown kindness by a widow.
Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead – A wonderful tale told from the perspective of two old friends appearing as extras in the classic zombie film, Dawn of the Dead
My Father’s Mask – A disturbing and surreal tale of a boy that goes away for the weekend with his parents.
Voluntary Committal – By far the longest story in the collection, this traditional horror story tells of a boy and his schizophrenic younger brother that builds things that lead to other places.
The title initially appears misleading, as only handful of the stories truly contain a ghost in the traditional sense, but as you work through you realise that all the characters are haunted in some way, by their past, their failures, their family, and their secrets. The horror that exists is more psychological than out and out gore. Ultimately, I found this a hard book to let go of. Long after I finished reading the stories, they lingered with me in my thoughts and in my dreams.
Overall, I think this is a collection of some of the best short fiction I have ever read. They are scary, thoughtful, beautiful, and moving. Human. The prose is quick and clever, and the exposition flawlessly creates the desired atmosphere. My only criticism is that all bar one of the protagonists are male, and the female characters that appear are not really fleshed out and tend to fall into the category of victim.
Hill is quickly becoming my favourite author. While Hill has gained a well-deserved reputation as a fine horror writer since this collection was first released, 20th Century Ghosts displays writing chops that step far outside the genre’s boundaries as the stories within straddle science fiction, fantasy, as well as the supernatural. There is not one story among them that I wouldn’t like to see a full novel-sized version of.
I can only imagine what a delight writing this collection must have been, as it seems to me that Hill has taken an opportunity with each of the stories to give a reverential nod to others who have inspired him; the Kafta-esque You Will Hear The Locust Sing, the nod to graphic novels with the origin story that is The Cape, and the Twilight Zone feel to Pop Art. Both Better Than Home and Voluntary Committal have a Bradbury feel to them. On top of all that, Hill has managed to reference baseball in at least three of the stories, a game I get the impression he has a real passion for.
If you haven’t read this yet, then I urge you to.
PS – Don’t forget to read the acknowledgements 😉