BOOK REVIEW: 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
True horror is not buckets of gore but fear—fear that creeps up on you, hangs on tight, and lingers. Few authors understand this as well as Joe Hill. His novel Horns (2011) is one of my favorites and his last release NOS4A2 (2013) was scary as Hell. His first published book, 20th Century Ghosts (2007) is a collection of horror and literary short stories. As a Hill fan, I thought it was about time I checked it out.
Ghosts opens with “Best New Horror,” about a horror editor seeking the author of a bizarre manuscript he aims to publish. No story has ever captured the dread I felt the first time I watched Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre better than this one. It wasn’t the plot that was familiar, but that sense of gritty, realism and fear. My only complaint is the abrupt ending.
Another suspenseful addition is “The Black Phone” about a boy that is abducted by a serial killer and trapped in a cell with a haunted phone. This one nailed the ending.
“Last Breath” read like something out of Tales from the Crypt. A family visits a museum where the curator has collected the final breaths of the deceased. This was a ghoulish tale with a great punch at the end.
If you are a fan of Dracula, you might enjoy “Abraham’s Boys” about Abraham Van Helsing and his two sons. Reminiscent of the film, Frailty (2001), Abraham decides that his boys are old enough to kill vampires, but whether vampires are real or Abraham is insane remains ambiguous. The real horror here is Abraham himself. He is a frightening and oppressive father.
Hill shows his romantic side in “20th Century Ghost” about a theater haunted by a deceased movie-lover named Imogen. This was a sweet story. In places a little too sweet, like rich chocolate frosting. But hey, who doesn’t love chocolate?
Another romance is “Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead” about two would-be lovers reunited when they play zombies on the set of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). The appearances throughout the story of Romero and makeup artist Tom Savini were great fun to read. Honest and well-paced, this was one of the better literary additions to the book.
Hill’s impressive imagination is exhibited in “Pop Art” about the coming-of-age of two boys. One has a debilitating condition and the other, a neglectful father. A story you’ve heard before, right? Wrong. The kid’s condition is that he is inflatable. Oh, and his name is Art. Get it? Pop Art? It’s a bad pun, but it suits Art’s sense of humor.
“Pop Art” is set in a universe where being inflatable is simply a terrible genetic condition. This struck me as bizarre until I saw the inflatable boy as a metaphor for how some people are so innocent they lack the thick skin to protect themselves from the evils of the world. Hill does a fantastic job of taking this unusual premise and developing it into a believable and emotional story about friendship.
“Better Than Home” is also about a boy struggling with a disorder. In his case, auditory sensory overload. My own son struggles with this and I was impressed by Hill’s empathy and understanding of children with special needs.
One of the more disturbing additions to Ghosts is “My Father’s Mask” which reads like a nightmare version of Alice in Wonderland filled with haunting images and bewildering scenes. The images of characters wearing masquerade masks and the playing card people in particular stuck with me. The card people are lifesize kings, queens that are as flat as their namesake and have the ability to slip under doorways. Creepy.
My favorite story in Ghosts was the novella “Voluntary Committal.” Again Hill demonstrates a keen understanding of special needs children with his autistic character, Morris. Morris loves to build massive, sprawling forts. So massive that some who enter are lost forever. “Committal” is an eerie and fantastic blend of literary description and horror.
Also included are “The Cape,” a dark superhero tale that reminded me of the film Unbreakable (2000); “Dead Wood,” about the ghosts of trees, a murder thriller called “In the Rundown;” and a literary piece about loss and generosity called “The Widow’s Breakfast.”
Hill breaks the fourth wall with a final story called “Scheherazade’s Typewriter” about the typewriter of a man that continues to print stories long after the man dies. I enjoyed the implication that the stories printed are those that comprise Ghosts.
This is a brilliant collection and must-read for Hill fans. If real horror and intense writing is what you’re after, I highly recommend you pick up Ghosts.