Monday, August 15, 2011

The Afterlife Was Always On His Mind: Joe Hill’s "20th Century Ghosts"

As you might have guessed, I am a bit of a nerd on the subject of Stephen King. I guess we’re all gonna have to agree to just be okay with that, and odds are good that if you’re reading these words, you’re already okay with it.

However ... sometimes I think I might have taken my obsession too far. No, no, don’t misinterpret me: I haven’t set any traps in the road so that the next time Big Steve comes driving by I can topple his car into a ditch and then spend the next few months nursing him back to health at an isolated farm all so I can force him to finish writing The Plant. No, no, that’s not something I’ve been planning; why, that’d be crazy.

Instead, I have occasionally wondered if I haven’t taken my obsession a bit too far by moving from collecting S.K.’s books and stories to collecting the various books written by his family members. I’ve got most of Tabitha’s novels, and while I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read any of them, I plan to read Small World soon. I’ve also got Owen King’s excellent collection of short stories, We’re All In This Together.

But today, however, I’m here to chatter at you about Joe Hill. Having just finished reading his collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts, I find that the urge to chatter about it is almost entirely irrepressible. I can say without any reservation that I am now roughly as addicted to reading Joe Hill as I am to reading Stephen King, and let me tell you, that realization comes paired with a big ole sigh of relief. See, my S.K. obsession dictates that I buy all of Hill’s stuff anyways; even if it was awful, I’d have to buy it. So finding out that not only is Hill’s writing decidedly not awful – that not only is it good, but awesome – is a relief somewhat akin to the jubilance crackheads might feel if the Surgeon General were to issue a press release tomorrow revealing that smoking rock is actually an aid to good blood pressure, whiter teeth, and a sunnier all-around disposition.

That’s unlikely to happen.

On the other hand, it seems entirely likely that Joe Hill will be continuing to provide mildly shame-faced Stephen King-obsessed bloggers with the reassurance that they are not, in fact, stalking the print versions of S.K.’s family; no, Joe Hill assures those bloggers that they are first and foremost reading really really really good writers who just happen to be related to S.K. I don’t want to say the relation is unimportant; but by the time I’d finished approximately two short stories by Joe Hill, the relation had long since ceased to be the primary motivating factor in terms of why I was reading.

With that in mind, let’s move on to my review of 20th Century Ghosts.

First, let me give you the short version: it’s extremely good, with not even one bad story contained within its pages. At least nine of the fifteen stories are drop-dead awesome, and I might be selling a few of the other six a bit short by not including them in that tally. If you’re a Stephen King fan, you owe it to yourself to read this book. If you’re not a Stephen King fan, you, also, owe it to yourself to read this book ... although you should probably first find something better to do with your time than hanging around King-centric blogs like this one!

So that was the short version of the review. We’ll be transitioning to the long version two paragraphs from now, but before we do that, I wanted to issue a warning: you should stop reading this review. That’s right, I said it; there’s no need for you to bother reading the rest of what I’ve got to say. I’m not going to be spoiling the stories, so don’t fear that you’re going to be reading my review and regrettably stumble upon the Joe Hill equivalent of Darth Vader turning out to be Luke Skywalker’s father. That won’t happen, but in a few places I will be mentioning some of the broad strokes of what the stories are about in a vague plot sense. And you don’t really want or need to know these things; even if you think you do, you don’t. It’s just that I feel like writing about them, so ... I feel a bit obliged.

But that doesn’t mean you need to read it! No, not at all. You’ve already been given all the info you need: that you should read 20th Century Ghosts, and the sooner the better. The stories are going to be good one way or another, there’s no way on Earth I could spoil that; but part of the delight I had in the reading of them had to do with the sudden sharp turns some of them took, both in terms of plot and in terms of character. My recommendation is that you approach them in much the same way I approached them: with virtually no clue of who or what they are about. In fact, don’t read Christopher Golden’s introduction to the book, either ... not, at least, until you’ve read the stories. He gives a bit too much away, in my opinion.

Still here? Okay, you’ve been warned. All quotations are from the stories (obviously), and all of them come from near the beginning ... so as to avoid giving anything substantial away.

“Best New Horror”

This is the tale of an editor of year’s-best-horror anthologies who is more than a bit jaded by his lot in life. Then, he comes into contact with an author he’s never read before, and a story that re-energizes his zeal for the genre. This is a good story. It’s my least favorite in 20th Century Ghosts, but that’s not really a criticism at all.

“He 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 go numb inside, the way a foot or a hand will go to sleep when the circulation is cut off. He feared the part of him being numbed was his soul.”

“20th Century Ghost”

The most useful thing I can say about this story is that it is about a haunted movie theatre, and that it had brought tears to my eyes by the time it had ended.

“There is the well-known story of the man who wanders in for a late show and finds the vast six-hundred-seat theater almost deserted. Halfway through the movie, he glances around and discovers her sitting next to him, in a chair that only moments before had been empty. Her witness stares at her. She turns her head and stares back. She has a nosebleed. Her eyes are wide, stricken. My head hurts, she whispers. I have to step out for a moment. Will you tell me what I miss? It is in this instant that the person looking at her realizes she is as insubstantial as the shifting blue ray of light cast by the projector. It is possible to see the next seat over through her body. As she rises from her chair, she fades away.”

"Pop Art"

Easily my favorite story in the book, this might also place quite well in a race to determine my favorite short story of all time. I’m aware that, having read the story only once, it’s premature to make claims like that latter one, but still, there you have it. This is a funny, sad, sweet, and brilliant story about friendship between two boys: one a normal flesh-and-blood boy and the other a walking, talking inflatable boy. Arthur is the best L. Frank Baum character never written by L. Frank Baum, and the story is as undeniably plausible as it is undeniably impossible.

“My best friend when I was twelve was inflatable. His name was Arthur Roth, which also made him an inflatable Hebrew, although in our now-and-then talks about the afterlife, I don’t remember that he took an especially Jewish perspective. Talk was mostly what we did – in his condition rough-house was out of the question – and the subject of death, and what might follow it, came up more than once. I think Arthur knew he would be lucky to survive high school. When I met him, he had already almost been killed a dozen times, once for every year he had been alive. The afterlife was always on his mind; also the possible lack of one.”

"You Will Hear the Locust Sing"

One of Joe Hill’s great gifts as a writer appears to be a masterful ability to utilize point-of-view. It’s too early to make sweeping statements, but the evidence of these stories indicates that he might even be better at point-of-view than is his father ... and to say that is to say something meaningful. In “You Will Hear the Locust Sing,” he’s telling the story of a high-schooler who wakes one morning to find that he has transformed into a man-sized locust. This, apparently, is something he’s been hoping would happen. Hill does about as good a job as I can imagine any writer ever doing of showing what it might be like if you suddenly found yourself transformed into an insect, and what it might be if – even though the experience isn’t entirely what you’d imagined it would be – you very much liked the change.

A lot of writers, I think, would have been tempted to write this from a first-person perspective. Hill writes it from the third-person perspective, but entirely within his protagonist’s point of view. This provides an excellent feeling of being simultaneously close to and distant from Francis. That’s nothing new as far as prose goes, of course, but Hill uses the technique exceptionally well; it’s kinda like the prose equivalent of the track-out, zoom-in camera move used first by Hitchcock in Vertigo. And if you don’t know what I mean by that, get yourself to Netflix posthaste and find out. After you’ve finished reading 20th Century Ghosts, of course.

“Francis Kay woke from dreams that were not uneasy, but exultant, and found himself an insect. He was not surprised, had thought this might happen. Or not thought: hoped, fantasized, and if not for this precise thing, then something like it. He had believed for a while he would learn to control cockroaches by telepathy, that he would master a glistening brown-backed horde of them, and send them clattering to battle for him. Or like in that movie with Vincent Price, he would only be partly transformed, his head become the head of a fly, sprouting obscene black hairs, his bulging, faceted eyes reflecting a thousand screaming faces.”

"Abraham’s Boys"

A tale of two boys who just happen to be the children of Abraham Van Helsing, who may or may not have been a vampire hunter. Sold? I thought so.

“This time last fall, Mrs. Kutchner had been agreeably plump, dimples in her fleshy cheeks, her face always flushed from the heat of the kitchen. Now her face was starved, the skin pulled tight across the skull beneath, her eyes feverish and bird-bright in their bony hollows. Her daughter, Arlene – who at this very moment was hiding with Rudy somewhere – had whispered that her mother kept a tin bucket next to the bed, and when her father carried it to the outhouse in the morning to empty it, it sloshed with a quarter inch of bad-smelling blood.”

"Better Than Home"

One of several stories in the book which are not even vaguely horror stories, this one is also not even vaguely fantastic in terms of its subject matter. Instead, this is pure New Yorker-style mainstream fiction, and it’s very good. It proves that Stephen King’s mania for baseball has definitely passed into the next generation: it is about a neurotic young boy’s relationship with his father, who is the manager of a major-league baseball team.

“I know he’s going to be thrown out because the home plate umpire is trying to walk away from him but my father is following him everywhere he goes. My father has all the fingers of his right hand stuck down the front of his pants, while the left gestures angrily in the air. The announcers are chattering happily away to tell everyone watching at home about what my father is trying to tell the umpire that the umpire is working so hard not to hear.”

"The Black Phone"

In which a boy is kidnapped and held prisoner – for what purpose we can only sickly guess at – by a very fat, very crazy man.

“He wasn’t any kind of fat, but grotesquely fat. His head had been shaved to a glossy polish, and there were two plump folds of skin where his neck met the base of his skull. He wore a loud Hawaiian shirt – toucans nestled among hanging creepers – although it was too cool for short sleeves. The wind had a brisk edge, so that Finney was always hunching and turning his face away from it. He wasn’t dressed for the weather either. It would’ve made more sense for him to wait for his father inside, only John Finney didn’t like the way old Tremont Poole was always eyeballing him, half-glaring, as if he expected him to break or shoplift something. Finney only went in for grape soda, which he had to have, it was an addiction.”

"In the Rundown"

The only thing I’m going to say about this story is this: another of Hill’s great talents seems to be in making thoroughly unappealing people serve as wholly compelling, understandable, and relatable protagonists.

“Kensington came to work Thursday afternoon with a piercing. Wyatt noticed because she kept lowering her head and pressing a wadded-up Kleenex to her open mouth. In a short time, the little knot of tissue paper was stained a bright red. He positioned himself at the computer terminal to her left, and watched her from the corners of his eyes, while he busied himself with a stack of returned videos, bleeping them back into the inventory with the scanner. The next time she lifted the Kleenex to her mouth, he caught a direct glimpse of the stainless steel pin stuck through her blood-stained tongue. It was an interesting development in the Sarah Kensington story.”

"The Cape"

A boy’s security blanket is fashioned into a superhero cape by his mother, and he learns – the hard way – that it gives him the power of flight. And then stuff happens.

This story has also been adapted into a comic book, which is excellent. That comic book in turn has been sequelized (by another writer, though extremely well) as a comic miniseries, the first issue of which was released last month. Hill, of course, is a major comics talent himself, as the writer of the much-lauded series Locke & Key. I’ve read the first trade of that series; it was terrific, and is well worth the time of anyone who has bothered to read this far into this review.

“The cape had started life as my lucky blue blanket and had kept me company since I was two. Over the years, the color had faded from a deep, lustrous blue to a tired pigeon gray. My mother had cut it down to cape size and stitched a red felt lightning bolt in the center of it. Also sewn to it was a Marine’s patch, one of my father’s. It showed the number 9, speared through by a lightning bolt. It had come home from Vietnam in his foot locker. He hadn’t come home with it. My mother flew the black P.O.W. flag from the front porch, but even then I knew no one was holding my father prisoner.”

"Last Breath"

One question most Stephen King fans probably have about Joe Hill’s writing is this: does he write the same type of stories that his father writes? Well, the answer to that is mostly a no: even his horror stories tend to be a bit more eclectic in their sensibilities than King’s. However, sometimes the answer is a yes, and I’d say “Last Breath” is probably the most patently King-like of the stories in this collection. It could have fit into either Night Shift or Skeleton Crew quite nicely, in fact.

“Before they could get away from him, Alinger cleared his throat to draw their attention. No one ever left once they had been spotted; in the battle between anxiety and social custom, social custom almost always won. He folded his hands together and smiled at them, in a way he hoped was reassuring, grandfatherly. The effect, though, was rather the opposite. Alinger was cadaverous, ten inches over six feet, his temples sunk into shadowed hollows. His teeth (at eighty, still his own) were small and gray and gave the unpleasant impression of having been filed. The father shrank away a little. The woman unconsciously reached for her son’s hand.”


A mere two pages (and that just barely), this lovely short-short is perhaps best described as a prose poem.

“It has been argued even trees may appear as ghosts.”

"The Widow’s Breakfast"

Another non-supernatural story, this is a well-told character piece about a train-hopping hobo during the Great Depression. One almost expects Dick Whitman to show up to meet him. Or perhaps Wild Bill Wharton. And (again), if you don’t get those references, get thee to Google.

“He was in New Haven for a while but didn’t stay. One morning, in the early dark, he went to a place he had heard about, where the tracks swept out in a wide arc, and the trains had to slow down almost to nothing going around it. There he waited. A boy in an ill-fitting and dirty suit jacket crouched beside him, at the base of the embankment. When the northeastern came, Killian jumped up and ran alongside the train, and hauled himself up into a loaded freight car. The boy pulled himself into the car right beside him.”

"Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead"

This story, too, is a “mainstream” piece rather than a horror story. However, it takes place on the set of Dawn of the Dead, and is a touching and slightly illicit love story. It’s one of my favorites in the book.

“Her face was a silvery blue, her eyes sunken into darkened hollows, and where her right ear had been was a ragged-edged hole, a gaping place that revealed a lump of wet, red bone. They sat a yard apart on the stone wall around the fountain, which was switched off. She had her pages balanced on one knee – three pages in all, stapled together – and was looking them over, frowning with concentration. Bobby had read his while he was waiting in line to go into makeup.”

"My Father’s Mask"

To be honest, I wouldn’t quite know where to begin in terms of summarizing this story. So I’ll restrict myself to saying this: this is the oddest, most surreal story in the collection, and for a collection that includes a story about a sentient inflatable doll, that’s saying something. Great story, though.

“On the drive to Big Cat Lake, we played a game. It was my mother’s idea. It was dusk by the time we reached the state highway, and when there was no light left in the sky, except for a splash of cold, pale brilliance in the west, she told me they were looking for me.”

"Voluntary Committal"

The longest story in the collection, “Voluntary Committal” is also one of the best. Additionally, it’s one of the stories most comparable to Stephen King. This one reminds me a bit of “The End of the Whole Mess” from Nightmares & Dreamscapes, but it’s better even than that story. It’s about two brothers, one of whom is perhaps autistic, and is definitely talented when it comes to constructing forts from cardboard boxes. His brother, meanwhile, is less talented, especially in terms of choosing his friends.

“I don’t know who I’m writing this for, can’t say who I expect to read it. Not the police, anyway. I don’t know what happened to my brother, and I can’t tell them where he is. Nothing I could put down here would help them find him.”

*  *  *  *  *

Well, I suppose that’s about all I’ve got to say on the subject of 20th Century Ghosts for the time being. It’s a great book, and hopefully I’ll have convinced one or two people to go out and pick up a copy.


  1. Good review. I finished this excellent collection a month ago and have now moved on to Joe Hill's novel Horns. I regret having waited so long to give him a try. I get the feeling I may end up liking Joe Hill's work even more than his father's. The short stories in 20th Cenury Ghosts were among the best I've ever read.

    1. Yeah, it's a phenomenal collection. I can't honestly say that I like Hill's work more than I like King's, but give him a while, and who knows? He's awfully good, that's for sure.