Book Review: 20th Century Ghosts
For a book titled 20th Century Ghosts, there are remarkably few ghosts involved let alone ghosts somehow invoking the zeitgeist of arguably the most horrific century in human history. But its a small, nitpicky disappointment: 20th Century Ghosts is a good collection of short stories by Joe Hill spanning the genres of horror, dark fantasy, fantasy, and drama.
By good, of course, I dont mean the book achieves the feat of offering an uninterrupted chain of perfectly enthralling stories thats the definition of a miracle. Rather, its good in the sense that if this or that particular story fails to satisfy, there are others to pick up the slack. Notably, even those less-than-compelling stories are impeccably written; Hill is a joy to read. He could even be held up as inspiration for writers looking to write and publish their own fiction.
The collection begins weakly with Best New Horror, an unsurprising story about a horror magazine editor tracking down, with predictable results, the mysterious author of a well-written and especially horrific story. In a way, it exemplifies a curious paradox in Hills work: his stories are much better when not boxed in by genre requirements. That need to provide a sinister final twist or offer up a fantasy element often works against the authentic drama he injects in his characters, just as Hills all-too-common fallback on the emotionally crippled, alienated teenager/child as protagonist makes later stories feel a tad repetitive. A case in point in one of the books most sizable missed opportunities, Abrahams Boys, in which the drama of sons trying to relate to a severe authoritarian father with a secret Abraham Van Helsing takes a wrong turn when Hill ends the story with a twist that unsettles, but also doesnt convince. Along with the 50s nuclear monster horror story You Will Hear the Locust Sing, Abrahams Boys highlights an all-too-common pattern in many of Hills horror stories: dysfunctional childhood leads to less than pleasant consequences for people in the protagonists lives. The problem
isnt that Hill offers character studies of murderers, but that he offers essentially the same character study. Biographical details may change, psychology stays the same.
Given the strength and emotional intensity, however of stories like Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead, in which high school sweethearts have a bittersweet reunion on the set of George Romeros Dawn of the Dead, or the tender reminiscences of a boy in Better Than Home, Hill ultimately proves that he doesnt need murders or fantasy gimmicks to tell a gripping yarn. He knows how to create characters with depth and, in the tradition of good short story writing, how to focus on a particular event or theme to get the most out of it.
This is certainly the case with The Widows Breakfast, in which a hobo finds temporary respite in the home of a widow still grieving for the loss of her husband. The story has the pallour of death, yet never stoops to inflicting a clichéd fate on characters that venture into strange places. Its a story of hard lives and hard grief, and one of the most moving of the book.
Fantasy cant be discounted entirely, though, as stories like Last Breath showcase an underused but nonetheless ghoulish cleverness. Premised on a museum of silence whose exhibits are dying breaths collected by the museums curator breaths that can be listened to through special hearing devices this little story convincingly demonstrates that Hill has the chops for imaginative fantasy. Its a shame that, as he is wont to do, Hill hollows out one the collections most imaginative fantasies by choosing the Twilight Zone route instead of something heftier although, to be fair, it does work in Voluntary Committal, the traumatized recollections of a man dealing with the unexplainable disappearance of people close to him.
Only Pop Art, about a boy and his walking/talking inflatable friend, avoids seeming like a Rod Serling-redux, but at the risk of getting made or broken by how willingly readers accept a universe in which inflatable dolls are, without reason, sentient. Beyond all of these, however, is the best of the lot, My Fathers Mask. Its an obtuse, challenging story whose surrealism-drenched allegory of a plot demands more work from readers than most of the collections other stories combined. As such, it lingers long after lesser stories have been forgotten. Like a dream, My Fathers Mask unsettles and fascinates in equal measure David Lynch by way of Tim Powers and along with Voluntary Committal, brings the collection to a decisive and very satisfying close.