20th Century Ghosts
by Joe Hill
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.