February 2, 2012

I Check Out the "20th Century Ghosts" in Joe Hill's Closet

20th Century Ghosts
by Joe Hill
HarperCollins (2007)
316 pages
ISBN 9780061147975

Purchase via: Amazon / Book Depository

There are times when you can find some real gems in a used-book store, and for me one of those times was snagging a signed hardcover edition of Joe Hill's acclaimed short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts. I found his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, at the same shop a year or so earlier. After reading that book, unaware at the time that Hill is the son of Stephen King, I became a fan. 20th Century Ghosts only serves to solidify my appreciation of Hill's deftness at storytelling.

To look at the book's title and its haunting cover, you might expect the stories are predominantly ghost stories, but the collection is much more diverse than that. There are certainly ghosts that appear, and other familiar figures from horror literature, but there are stories that explore more contemporary characters and even fantastical elements.

"Pop Art" immediately springs to mind as a story that rises above what some might expect from Hill. A malcontent teen befriends a tormented classmate named Art, who just happens to be an inflatable vinyl punching bag. That story alone would have made this book an enjoyable read, but Hill offers up more, including quiet--but no less unsettling--stories like "The Black Phone" and "My Father's Mask." Then there are the stories that are familiar in tone, but pack a unique punch. Namely "Best New Horror" and "The Cape".

It becomes apparent very quickly as "Best New Horror" kicks off the collection, a story about a horror anthology editor in search of an author more mysterious and potentially controversial than the brilliant story he's written. It's a story that on the surface level feels like territory that has been visited time and time again, but as the story unfolds there is a lingering sense that Hill is trying out more than a story about an editor chasing his proverbial white whale. In fact, just about every story that feels familiar offers a slanted view of the tropes we fans of horror and fantasy have come to love.

The only one that I can think of that might be considered pat is "Last Breath", but even then my affinity towards those charming tales of the bizarre wins out.

If you love short stories, if you love literary horror, and if you love collections that offer a diverse assortment, you had better check out Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts. It's easily one of the best collections I've read thus far, and would rank it among Clive Barker's Books of Blood and Stephen King's Night Shift.


  1. This really is a great collection. "pop Art" is the one that sticks out in my memory as well. I need to revisit this one.

  2. Yeah, this collection was a really interesting find. It has a diverse group of stories, some which are very unusual (Pop Art probably being the best example of this) and some which are genuinely creepy and weird. I always liked the one about the kid who built cardboard mazes - that was some freaky stuff, and very inventive.

  3. I actually own this one. Admittedly I haven't read it yet. Strange since I've read Heart Shaped Box and Horns. (Hugs) Indigo

  4. Hated it... well, didn't hate it, but I was expecting "fun" horror. Not literary horror. Liked "The Cape" and the first story. And the last story. Hated Pop Art. Hated it. Maybe I'm just not sophisticated enough to appreciate the wonder of it. Hated the Kafka-esque metamorphosis-like story. And the rest for me was kind of blah. Loved Heart Shaped Box. Liked Horns. This collection just did nothing for me

  5. I don't think I'd put it up in the rarefied heights with BOOKS OF BLOOD and NIGHT SHIFT, but it was a very good collection.

  6. A spectacular collection in my opinion, though I'll readily admit to being unsure as to what exactly transpires in My Father's Mask.

  7. Anthony - "Pop Art" is still one I think back on, mainly for how damned odd it was.

    Michele - Inventive is a good word to go with.

    Indigo - I imagine you'll enjoy at least a few of the stories if you liked his two novels. Also recommend the "Locke & Key" graphic novels if you ever get the chance to read them.

    Brad - "The Cape" was cool, yes, as well as that first one "Best New Horror". I imagine if I hadn't already heard about the literary aspects, I might have been thrown, too.

    Will - That's just my kind of hyperbole, I guess. Hard to say where the horror community ranks it as a whole among other collections, but it's a real standout for me.

    Sling - I don't recall the details of that one offhand. I'll have to reread it this year.