Thursday, July 18, 2013

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

20th Century Ghosts
By Joe Hill
Copyright 2007

Best New Horror
Eddie Carroll is the burned out editor of horror anthologies who is tired of reading the mindless, rehashed stories submitted for his anthology of best new horror stories. One day he receives in the mail a college literary magazine that includes a story called, Buttonboy. Buttonboy is the story of how a woman was kidnapped, raped, and held by a psychopath. She escapes, only to be capture again. Carroll is intrigued and tracks down the author at his remote upstate New York home. There, he finds the author living a real life horror story and Carroll has just become the part of the plot.

I liked this story a lot with its character development and commentary on the academic publishing industry. However, the build up to the climax was rushed. It was a good ending, but could have meant so much more to the reader had the lead up to it been more horrific.
20th Century Ghosts
Alec Sheldon owns the Rosebud Theater – a theater haunted by the specter of a long dead movie enthusiast. Theater patrons often claim to have seen a young woman, blue and translucent, sitting in the old, independent theater. They often talk of the blood they see trickling from her nose. Sheldon knows the difference between an authentic sighting and a real one. Sheldon encountered her one afternoon whilst watching Disney’s Fantasia when he was a young man in the 1940s. Sheldon starts working at the theater and eventually owns it. The theater has fallen on hard times and Sheldon can see the end coming for his business. One day, he gets a call from an old acquaintance who’s made it big in the movie business who wants to buy it. This man had his own encounter with the girl who Sheldon learned died of a cerebral incident in the 1930s while watching The Wizard of Oz. A real movie enthusiast was this young woman. That same day, old acquaintances who had genuine encounters with the ghost start calling him. He sells the theater. It is renovated and rebranded as a revival house. A documentary crew is on hand for its opening and captures the reunion of Alec Sheldon and the long dead movie buff.

This was not a scary ghost story, but a literary one. Hill works quite hard at developing a plot which captures the reader’s imagination and hooks him on the story. The character development is a bit thin for a story this long and the narrative is a bit choppy with unannounced flashbacks, but the story is strong enough to carry it and make it an enjoyable read.

Pop Art
A loner teenager forms a friendship with the most unusual of friends. His best friend is an inflatable doll. This doll goes to school where he is picked on by bullies and communicates by writing on a pad with crayon. The loner has a miserable home life with no mother and an uncaring, dismissive father. Meanwhile, the inflatable boy enjoys loving, supportive parents. The bond develops as the two spend almost every waking hour together until the inflatable boy meets with misfortune – a hole in his plastic. When he must be inflated several times a day just to stay alive, his best friend helps him realize his ultimate dream.

This was a warm, feel good story that really pulls at the heartstrings. The premise sounds incredibly silly and as I read the first couple paragraphs, I was ready to skip ahead. By page two, I was hooked. The companion’s inflatable nature can be interpreted as anything that makes children fragile – illness, injury, etc. What’s important is that Hill makes it all so plausible while developing these wonderful characters and telling a superb story.

You Will Hear The Locust Sing
A young man living near an atomic bomb testing site wakes up to find out he’s transformed into a giant locust overnight. The young man had a habit of eating insects and he’s sure that is the reason for his transformation. An outcast, he gets revenge on his tormentors at home and school.

This is derivative of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the 1950s b-horror movie, Beginning of the End. Somehow Hill makes it work. Hill has a knack for taking the silliest of premises (see Pop Art), treating them seriously, and making the story work.

Abraham’s Boys
Vampire killer Abraham Van Helsing has moved to the United States. With him he brought his two sons and his wife. His wife has passed on, but he has two sons to take care of and is dutiful in making sure they are both home by dark. When they come of age, he trains them in the art of vampire killing. But as is often the case, children are not so dutiful – or loyal.

The first real stinker of the book. Hill tries to develop the characters in the story, but they are just not interesting. The story is thin and lackluster. I couldn’t wait to finish this one.

Better than Home
A young boy learns life lessons from his father who is the manager of a major league baseball team. He watches on television as his father berates umpires and coaches his club. He sits and watches practice when the team is at home and discusses life.

Another stinker of a story. I usually love baseball stories. But this one was just a series of random events searching for a plot.

The Black Phone
A 13 year old boy is kidnapped and locked in a basement room by a fat professional clown. The man promises not to hurt him or make him do anything he doesn’t want to do. John Finney knows better because several kids have disappeared recently and none have returned. The only object in the room with Finney is an old, antique phone that does not work, although it does ring occasionally. Every time it rings, Finney answers, hoping against hope. The phone rings one final time and this time there is someone on the line – one of the killer’s victims, who offers some advice and encouragement.

The Black Phone was mildly entertaining. Its plot was rock solid and the main character developed nicely. What aggravated me about this story was Hill adopting his father’s penchant for making fat people evil. I hate this form of discrimination and Hill ought to stay away from this stereotype his father adopted years ago.

In the Rundown
A video clerk is discharged for retaliating against a fellow employee by calling her a crude name. On his way home, he comes across the grisly scene of two stabbed children in a car with their weeping mother. Mom is holding a knife, but insists she wrestled it from the assailant who has fled. Mom bolts the scene, ostensibly going for help while leaving the ex-clerk holding the knife with one dead and one wounded child.

Given the circumstances of how the clerk was fired, the reader anticipates the guy getting caught in the wrong set of circumstances again. I’m sure that is where Joe Hill was leading the reader. But just like that poor clerk, the reader is left in an unfortunate circumstance: we don’t ever learn what happens in the end. Ambiguity is often an effective way to finish a story. In this instance, it was not.

The Cape
A young boy wearing a costume cape discovers he can fly. Unfortunately, to prove to himself that it is the cape that makes him fly, he takes it off. He falls to the ground and is injured badly, including brain trauma. The once bright boy becomes a slacker while his brother excels in life. They boy steals his brother’s girlfriend and they live together for a couple years before she tires of his slacker ways. One night as an adult, he finds the cape and puts it on. It has lost none of its magic. He decides to pay his old girlfriend a visit.

The end of this story left me thinking, so what? Hill develops the main character well enough. But I think we were supposed to care about the brother and the girlfriend as well. They weren’t well developed enough to make me care about their feelings or their fate.

Last Breath
Dr. Allinger is a most unusual curator of a most unusual museum. In his Museum of Silence, he collects the dying breaths of people – and he has a few celebrities as his centerpieces including Edgar Allan Poe whose last gasp was for a drink. A family stops to tour the museum. The whole family is shocked by its subject, but the father and son are morbidly intrigued. Mom tries one and flees the museum in protest. A few minutes later, Dr. Allinger is taking his equipment to the street outside.

This delightful story would have worked well on Tales from the Crypt, or if your tastes run more retro (like mine) Night Gallery. Hill is careful to treat with all seriousness this intriguing story line that could have easily been written as second rate camp.

Dead Wood
This is a short pseudo feature article on the appearance of ghost trees and the damage they do when they appear.

Not much here to comment on. It’s an original concept and an original presentation. However, there just wasn’t much “there” there.

The Widow’s Breakfast
A Great Depression era hobo jumps off a train near a rural New England farm. He finds an “X” on a tree nearby. Hoping that this is hobo code for Food Available, he goes to the house where he sees two little girls standing, holding flowers. He knocks on the door and is invited in by the woman of the house. She prepares him a generous breakfast and gives him food and clothes that belonged to her now dead husband. As he’s leaving, he observes the girls, still standing still and solemn. They are standing over a third girl, pretending to be dead. They invite him to play their funeral game.

It’s not as spooky as it sounds. The Widow’s Breakfast is a literary period piece. There was supposed to be a little bit of irony and a little social commentary on how those who have little still try to be charitable. The irony was weak and the theme of the story directly stated. A tepid entry in this collection.

Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead
Bobby Conroy has just moved back to Monroeville, Pennsylvania from New York where he failed as an actor and comedian. George Romero is filming his legendary zombie movie, The Dawn of the Dead and Bobby has been cast as an extra zombie. While waiting for his short bit in the movie, he runs into his high school girlfriend and her son, also extras in the movie. Bobby is overwhelmed with different emotions including joy, jealousy, anger, nostalgia, and love as they get reacquainted while made up as the living dead.

Like so many stories in this collection, this is more a literary story than anything related to horror. It is a tale about lost love, failure, and looking back at what could have been. It is well written and the complex emotions make Bobby Conroy a complex character.

My Father’s Mask
A young boy and his family travel to a remote cabin the family inherited from the boy’s grandfather. On the way, his mom tells him a story about “playing card people” who are ruining their lives. They are going to sell many of the possessions in the cabin because they need the money. When they arrive, both of his parents dawn masks, telling him it’s an old tradition. The next day, he is dispatched to the woods to gather firewood. He encounters a boy, riding an old fashioned bike, and wearing a nightgown. He’s frightened of the boy for reasons he cannot explain. He detours around him and encounters two more kids. These kids play a strange card game with him. If he wins, he gets to ask them the way home. He wins and they direct him back to the cabin, detouring around the mysterious boy. He arrives to find that his dad’s mask is off, and his body’s internal organs are mapped on his skin as he lies semi-naked in the living room. The appraiser is there and starts coming onto his father. She says she’ll take everything in the living room. His mom comes out and make him put on his father’s mask and they leave as the appraiser “takes” what is in the living room. On the way home, as the boy wears his father’s mask, he finds that he is losing his memory of his father.

Way too much ambiguity in this story. I love an author who will leave room in a story for reader interpretation. Hill’s father is seldom ambiguous and his stories almost always clear cut. Hill is more literary in his approach. While I think I get what Hill was going for in this story, he left out too much for me to be sure and disappointed me.

Voluntary Committal
A 14 year old loner becomes friends with the school tough guy. Meanwhile, at home, he has a mildly autistic younger brother who builds amazing “forts” out of cardboard boxes in their parents’ basement. One day, Nolan and his tough buddy do something really bad and they flee to Nolan’s house where they discuss it. Nolan’s brother overhears. Nolan is stricken with terror and grief over what he’s done and tries to end the friendship that got him into trouble. Instead his brother ends it for him.

This was a novelette length first person narrative that reminded me very much of his father’s writing style when he was younger. While the stories are quite different, the writing style reminds me very much of The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet from Skeleton Crew. There is no rising action until just before the climax. The reader knows what is going to happen, but you keep reading to get the payoff. It was a nice story with which to close the book, but Hill wasn’t done. He hid one in the final credits.

One error I did catch: The story is set in 1977. Yet his brother uses a box that once contained a projection television. Rear projection, wide screen televisions were unheard of in 1977. We can forgive Mr. Hill. It can be difficult to write a story set in a time you can’t remember.

Scheherazade's Typewriter
A woman recounts how, when she was a little girl, her father would retreat to the basement of their home and write short stories on an electric typewriter. He was not particularly gifted at the craft and never successfully published anything. After he died, the typewriter would fire up at 8:00 every night and the keys would hit the cylinder. The girl and her mom make a habit of putting paper in the typewriter every evening so the man could go on writing from the grave. His ghost stories improved immensely after he became one himself.

This was a light, not to be taken too seriously story. There may be hidden in there, somewhere, a little commentary on the publishing industry.

Joe Hill is his father’s son, but he’s his own author. While he can – and sometimes does – imitate a few of the styles King has used to tell short stories over the years, he also has a voice that is completely independent of his father’s. Joe Hill leaves more to the imagination than Stephen King. Sometimes this is good, as it was in Voluntary Committal. Sometimes, he just doesn’t deliver enough and the ambiguity is too much, as it was in My Father’s Mask. Nonetheless, writing is in his genes and he does it well most of the time.

The best stories are front loaded into this collection. I felt less and less compelled to return to it as I got further along after a furious start. 20th Century Ghosts is not nearly as much fun as King’s first collection of short stories, Night Shift. But it’s clear that Hill is more “serious” about his stories than his father was all those years ago when he was telling tales about haunted mirrors, spree killers, and fornits.

Just like his father, I’m sure Joe Hill writes for an audience of one: himself. He takes risks. He tries different styles and employs different narrative styles. The collection is worth reading just to behold the early work of a young man who may take his father’s place as the King of genre fiction.


  1. "Hill adopting his father’s penchant for making fat people evil. I hate this form of discrimination and Hill ought to stay away from this stereotype"

    I realize this is an old post, and I'm behind, but I'm reading this book, and it's the first of Hill's books I've read, and the fat-hate is staggering to me. So disappointing. Are all of his books this way? I'm only two stories in, and it's already hard to take. It's ruining it for me.

  2. I haven't noticed it in other Hill books. It ran through his short story collection fairly prominently. His father has the same prejudice.

  3. Thanks, I might have to try some of his other work. He is a good writer, but I just get sick of that bigotry.

  4. Modern rear-projection television has been commercially available since the 1970s - so the box could have been obtained at a store. My mother used to get boxes for me at the appliance store to play in.