Review – “20th Century Ghosts” by Joe Hill

Review – “20th Century Ghosts” by Joe Hill

20th Century Ghosts” is a collection of short stories by Joe Hill.  For those unfamiliar with Joe Hill (as I was before picking up this book) – he is not only a promising young writer, he is also the son of Stephen King.  I must confess that I did not know that going in.  In hindsight, it’s hard not to see the family resemblance in the jacket photo.  I had to ask myself after reading the book, though – was there a professional resemblance as well?

I don’t read a lot of short fiction.  I find that I like to lose myself in a world for a few days, not just a few minutes.  Still – sometimes there is a great idea that just won’t fill up a 300-page novel.  Those ideas are like hermit crabs – they have to find a shell to live in, one that fits them.  Too big, and they would remain immobile and uninteresting.  In those cases, for those ideas, a short story is just the right size.

On balance, the stories in this collection are well worth reading.  There’s very little filler, although I did not love everything.  What I did love was Hill’s perspective on the horror genre.  In these stories, you don’t find much in the way of standard horror fare.  There are no demons, no aliens, no unstoppable psychopaths with hockey masks and machetes.  What you find is a fulfilling juxtaposition between the ordinary world and extraordinary circumstances.  In most cases, Hill treats the central conceit of the story as something completely plausible – and by doing so, brings a texture to the narrative that is both appealing and rewarding. (I think that the story “Pop Art” is the best example of this in the collection.

So, was there a professional resemblance between Hill and his father?  It’s hard to say.  Had I not known that he was King’s son, I’m not sure that I would make the connection.  Knowing his lineage, however, it’s hard not to see a few echoes here and there.  In particular, “My Father’s Mask” feels like the kind of story that would be right at home in the King universe.

I really enjoyed this collection.  Hill wanted to strike out and make a name for himself without relying on his famous father.  I think that he does that admirably in this book.  Did it work on every level?  No.  But most collections of short fiction don’t.  You are going to get some hits and some misses – that’s the nature of the medium.  I’m anxious now to read his full-length novels “Heart Shaped Box” and “Horns“, and see what he can do in a long format.  I’m confident that he won’t disappoint.  I’ll let you know.


The story that opens the collection is a pretty straightforward horror short story.  It deals with an editor who wants to publish a disturbing new piece of fiction he has received, and needs to track down the author to gain permission.  Two things I really loved about this story.  One, there is a great tongue in cheek reference to his father’s work at one point.  The editor refers to some of the bad stories he has read as being about “moronic hicks giving birth to shit-demons in outhouses located on ancient Indian burial grounds.  I liked the subtle nod to “Dreamcatcher” and “Pet Semetary”.  Second, the main character, being a horror author, is immersed in the cliché and formula that is much of today’s modern horror fiction.  That makes it even more ironically delicious as he, himself, is caught up in a clichéd horror story himself.


The story that lends its title to the book is not the strongest presented here.  It’s a ghost story revolving around a young woman who, having died during a showing of “Wizard of Oz” continues to haunt the theater.  A few sly pop culture references make it enjoyable, as does Hill’s obvious love for movies.


Not really a horror story, but one of my favorites in the book.  It matter-of-factly discusses the relationship that develops between a young boy, and the new kid in his school – who just happens to be an inflatable plastic doll.  It’s every bit as absurd as it sounds, but the way that Hill presents it makes it both believable and touching.


This is Hill’s ode to the monster movies of the 50’s and 60’s.  A young man, living near a nuclear test site, wakes up one morning to find that he has been transformed in to a human sized bug.  The story deals with relationship and revenge, but it’s clear that there is not a lot of new ground to be covered.  There’s a reason it’s a short story.


This story deals with Dutch immigrants who just happen to be named Van Helsing and believe in Vampires.  It’s not really a story about Vampires, though.  It’s a story about a boy who grows up under the shadow of his father’s obsessions, and has to make a choice about embracing them or breaking free.


Again, not truly a horror story.  Much like the previous tale, this one deals with a boy’s relationship with his father.  The boy has severe learning and social disabilities, and his mother wants to get him “help”  His father, though, seems better equipped to deal with the problems and make the boy feel safe and understood.


This is Hill’s take on an abduction story.  A neighborhood sociopath abducts a young man who gets helps from an unexpected source.  There is not a lot of new ground broken in this story, and it didn’t really impact me like some of the others.


This is a nice little story that has a satisfying symmetry that you want out find in short fiction.  The title refers to that feeling of hopelessness a base runner gets when trapped between first and second base, desperate to avoid being tagged out.  In this story, we follow Wyatt who, through no fault of his own, is trapped in a far more sinister rundown, with far higher stakes.


This might be the best story in the collection.  Why?  For two reasons.  First, it deals with something every little boy is familiar with – the desire to fly.  Our hero discovers that he can fly by accident one day, thanks to a cape his mother made for him.  Unfortunately, he loses the cape in mid air, and is seriously injured in the fall.  This one event helps set the course for his life.  The second reason I liked the story so much was the ending.  I just didn’t see it coming – and for me, that is a very rare and precious occurrence.


I like the premise of this story – a museum that features the dying breaths of both famous and ordinary people.  (“It’s not a museum of science – it’s a museum of silence”).  At the museum, you can listen to the breaths themselves – but what you hear might surprise you.  It’s a unique premise that lasts just about the short length of the story.


Not really a story – more of an idea.  Interesting idea – but just a fragment.


This was one of my least favorite stories in the book.  It tells the tale of a rail rider who hops a train and ends up a widowed mother’s house, looking for food.  Hill goes for a twist at the end, but the story just left me flat.


As I was reading this story, it kept nagging me – I was sure that I had read it before.  Turns out, I had.  It appears in the anthology “The Living Dead” that was published in 2008.  Reading it again didn’t detract from the story – in fact it’s one of my favorites in the book.  It’s not a horror story, although it does take place in one of the most famous horror settings in film – the set of “Dawn of the Dead” with George Romero.  The story is really about second chances, and what we would all do if we had the opportunity to have a “do-over”.


This story feel like it could be more.  Of all the stories in the collection, this one feels the most like it could be expanded into a full length novel  There is an entire undercurrent of “scope” that permeates the book – we just get a taste of the world that could be explored here.  A family travels to their lake house in order to escape “the playing card people” – flat people that “slip under doors” and hide in plain site (I made comparisons to “The Regulators” and “Insomnia” before I could catch myself).  While there, their teenage boy learns more about this shadow world going on around him – but not enough.  I would really like to see Hill take this concept and expand it.  Too much was left unsaid here.


This is a story that could be expanded, but also works just fine as a novella (it’s the longest tale in the collection).  It tells the story of two brothers – the older, mostly normal, with a few social issues; the younger, afflicted with a mental disorder, or so it appears.  The younger brother likes to build things – structures, forts – out of anything that he can get his hands on.  Mostly he likes to build with cardboard boxes.  The thing is – his creations are sometimes more than they appear.  Sometimes, it seems that they might lead to places that couldn’t possibly exist.  It’s within that framework that Hill explores that relationship between the two brothers, but more importantly – the older brother’s relationship with himself.  It’s a great read.


Hill hides on additional story in the acknowledgements at the end of the book.  It’s the story of a deceased man whose typewriter continues to churn out stories after his death.  They might even be the stories that you have just read.   I like what he tries to do with it, but it didn’t quite pull together as well as I think he wanted it to.


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