Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts Reviewed

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Even though his greatest mystery was recently stripped away, the writer known as Joe Hill attracts a great deal of curiosity these days. I am, of course, talking about the uncovering of his familial ties, since Joseph Hillstrom King is none other than the son of Stephen King. That said, Hill ought to be admired from the start for his determination to stand on the merits of his craft by using a pseudoname, rather than his father's reputation. Judging by the recent acclaim surrounding the author, as well as booksales, he's achieved this, at least in part. Both Heart Shaped Box, his first novel, and the new edition of his short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts, have gained wide acclaim usually unknown to new writers. For this reason alone, Joe Hill is a case worth examining. And what better way to do it than by taking in a sampling of his talents in 20th Century Ghosts? After all, the short story has always given the author countless ways to display many talents, and to reinvent themselves or even the whole genre.

Those looking for traditional horror with clear hair raising monstrosities will be disappointed in Joe Hill's collection, or at least confused. Hill is no purist set on pastiches or showing definite influence from the likes of Lovecraft, his father, Barker, or anyone else. Instead, each story in this collection could stand on its own as both the work of a new writer, and an example of how young innovators are out to change horror today. In the latter case, Hill seems to have opted for what might best be described as cross-genre approaches, though that successful strategy for other writers has often involved nothing more straining than blending horror with sci-fi and fantasy elements. Hill, however, touches on loftier goals--incorporating bits of existential dread, romance, parodying his own literary industry, and coming-of-age angst. To get at the crux of this and clarify the Hill experiments, it's only fair to examine some selected stories independently. And since horror is still the number one concern on this blog, viewing them in terms of their success with it, regardless of cross-breeding with other genres, must take strong initiative here.

  • "Best New Horror:" This tale highlights the search of a seasoned editor for the mysterious author of a grotesque, but ground-breaking story he wishes to include in his annual anthology of The Year's Best Horror. This story which makes an interesting parody of horror literature itself, is also innovative in another respect: in the form of the editor, it introduces a king of horror to the terrors he's evaluated all his life. Oddly, Hill humorously captures facets of what must constitute editorial existence, with presumably little firsthand knowledge of it himself. Fortunately, despite dragging in the often-seen fear of degenerate backwoods people, the story does not suffer. Hill's wit and style even season a fairly predictable ending sufficiently to remain satisfying.
  • "20th Century Ghost:" The title feature of the short-story collection revolves around an old town theater haunted by a young lady. It is less effective than others in the volume as a pure horror tale. That said, it still makes for fine reading. Hill's narration makes it feel like the campfire reminiscing of a trusted relative who's encountered real life ghosts. It also displays one of Hill's often-praised strengths: the gripping use of emotional energy. Though not scary or mysterious, the rundown of the old theater owner's life and his weird relationship with the ghostly inhabitant is moving.
  • "Pop Art:" Hill combines his potent emotional sense with humor and absurdity to pull off this story. Like "20th Century Ghosts," it's difficult to find a focus point for genuine fear. However, the torments laid upon the rare race of inflatable people--one of whom is befriended by the story's narrator--by other humans suffices to play this tale in horror better than any other category. Unlike "Best New Horror," this one bleeds a bit more from a predictable near-ending, but strong emotional conclusions to an absurd situation rescue it from mediocrity.
  • "You Will Hear the Locust Sing:" A gruesome scenario probably taking its inspiration from Franz Kafka, Hill makes strained family ties and unexplained transformation a success. Unlike Kafka's pathetic Gregor from his story "The Metamorphosis," Hill's young lad seems more delighted than anything else with his new locust-like body. The fun lies not only in following the gory rampage of the transformed boy, but in seeing it from his perspective, and drawing whatever literary meanings one might like from this yarn.
  • "Abraham's Boys:" Hill makes what was originally a Van Helsing tale relatable to any reader with little knowledge of the Van Helsing sagas. The writer's immense strength in conveying emotional strain, in this case via the overbearing relationship between Abraham and his sons, dissolves into a balance of fear. And by that, I mean the background presence of the undead the family is bound to destroy, and the inevitable showdown between father and sons.
  • "The Black Phone:" Quite possibly the best horror tale in the entire collection. Hill's piece of a boy held prisoner by a kidnapper in a cellar, with a phone that receives calls from the dead, is not to be missed. An unusual mixture of horror and psychological thrills with adventure give it a delightful flavor. There are many aspects here that could also be spoiled, however, so I will leave off by merely saying it is an excellent tale that leaves one satisfied with a lingering sense of the strange.
  • "In the Rundown:" A socially awkward, angry man confronts a hideous situation in this very realistic horror story by Hill. Like his father, the author displays his knack for making real life terrors frightening, and not overly gory or pastiche. Hill's ability to convey anger through his snubbed perspective-character in this piece is also very well taken, since it too comes off as authentic, and not psychotic or stilted.
  • "Last Breath:" This delightful story about an old museum of last breaths is so strange and unexpected. It highlights more of Hill's talents, as his biting humor is at work again, along with a kick for making the borderline-absurd ominous and tangible. This work even carries a Twilight Zone like feel to it, since it steers clear from the more obvious malevolent forces in other tales. The end even seems to contain a lesson, whereby the collector of death rattles really does appear a simple scientist and preserver after all, in the face of nature.
  • "Dead-Wood:" A short vignette about spectral trees. Brief and seemingly factual, it's a nice interregnum to a collection with many ghostly figures to uncover.
  • "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead:" Not much time to spend on this one. In fact, it was only selected because of enjoyable references to George Romero and the set of "Dawn of the Dead," the backdrop for this story. Aside from this fact, it is an adept story of a man running into his ex-love on the movie's set, where both are playing zombies. It's a purely emotional drama by Hill, and aside from fake zombies, has nothing else defining it as a true horror story.
  • "My Father's Mask:" The blurred interaction of weird masks, ritual, and parental ties in this story leave a lot to imagination. This is, not surprisingly, a strength rather than a weakness. The story's center is again a boy at the cusp of adolescence, but his traditional growth is interrupted by an encounter with the weird. The powers of the masks, semi-pagan happenings, and the mystical backdrop at the family cabin suggest a great many oddities, which give it a sensational weirdness. Hill has effectively amalgamated quasi-teenage angst and deep emotions with a mood similar to something by Arthur Machen or the original film, "The Wicker Man."
  • "Voluntary Commital:" This piece is another one with a very heavy dose of the weird. The traditional weird, in fact, and Joe Hill isn't shy about it, if the reference to Lovecraft's Leng Plateau is any indication. The story is an account of a man troubled years later by the disappearance of a teenage acquaintenance at the hands of his semi-retarded younger brother. You see, his sibling possesses an exceptional skill for making vast, maddening constructs. Imagine childhood forts on a larger, stranger large and strange, in fact, that they seem to seep into other dimensions--or let others blur into ours. I won't say more about this wonderful piece, besides the fact that both this one and "My Father's Mask" come exceptionally close to the boundaries of Weird Fiction.
This is not the full list. Several other tales included with the edition fell so far outside the bounds of horror--not necessarily in a good way--that they didn't seem worth including. One needs to approach Joe Hill's horror with an open mind. If the reader can do this, then they won't be disappointed. As with the uncertain possibilities of time, the stories included in this book may allow horror aficianados to guage the emergence of what may be a new, popular writer, who is already well formed, but by no means complete. The greatest weakness with this one lies in the selection by either Hill or the publisher. Alongside many well formed horror tales are several that would easily belong elsewhere. These pure dramas and romances are unlikely to capture the attention of a horror base that expects a full complement of scary stories. On the other hand, this may not turn out to be a bad thing if the writer's career flourishes. By including these tales, the book is closer than anything else to a full collection of Joe Hill's published short fiction.

Overall, Hill is a writer to keep an eye on. More importantly though, he is a writer to read now, since his stories already contain great maturity in both style and content. His official website is here.

-Grim Blogger

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