20th Century Ghosts
Reviewed by Paul F. Olson
It’s not easy to write a good short story. A good short story is a thing of wonder, a tiny miracle, a concoction of amazing complexity that is placed under an enchantment so that it appears to be everything it is not: easy, effortless, deceptively simple.
It’s not easy to write a good short story. It’s even harder to write a book stuffed full of them. The magic is so hard to pull off even once, let alone consistently, that even the best collections by the best writers can show the strain.
Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts is one of those rare volumes that defies the odds, a book brimming from start to finish with little miracles and a few fairly large ones. Its fifteen tales are a mixed bag of horror, mainstream fiction and the all-but-unclassifiable, and yes, some do indeed work better than others. But each, in its own way, succeeds. Each, on one or more levels, is an example of the short-story writer’s art.
By now, just about every horror fan is familiar with Joe Hill. They know his blue-ribbon lineage — the son of famous writers. They know he showed his long-form chops with his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, and they know the buzz that started in 2005 when 20th Century Ghosts was released in the UK by PS Publishing. The buzz intensified with the U.S. release of the book last fall. The word is out there on the genre street: Hill is the real deal.
Even those who haven’t yet discovered him … well, they will. There’s a certain inevitability about Joe Hill. It’s there on the pages of his novel and in the words of his stories. There’s an unmistakable “force of nature” feeling about his work, a sense that he’s good right now but is just getting started, that in another year, two or three at the most, he will be all but impossible to ignore.
One of the first things that strikes you when you read the tales in 20th Century Ghosts is Hill’s fairly remarkable courage. He’s an absolutely fearless writer, willing to take even the most outlandish, off-the-wall ideas — the kind of ideas that come to most writers at one time or another but are shelved, as often as not — and actually run with them, full speed ahead. The affliction of the title character in “Pop Art,” for example, might have occurred to many writers, who would shake their heads, ask themselves, “where the hell did that come from?” and immediately move on to the next project. But Hill doesn’t move on. Instead, he takes his unusual premise and crafts a story of immense, almost breathtaking beauty. That story is immediately followed by “You Will Hear the Locust Sing,” which begins with another somewhat daring concept and becomes, over the course of 21 pages, a tale that is part literary tribute, part homage to 1950s science fiction films, part humor, part horror.
Not every tale in 20th Century Ghosts embarks from such bizarre places. Some, in fact, are precisely the opposite, and these showcase a different side of Hill’s talent: the ability to take a fairly mundane situation and turn it into something extraordinary. In lesser hands, the title piece might have been little more than a pastiche or a nostalgic wallow, but Hill crafts something much better, building a story that is at once creepy, touching and uplifting. Ditto “Last Breath,” which appears to be something we’ve all read before, many years ago, ends with a surprise that isn’t really all that surprising, yet still manages to leave you feeling spooked. It’s like stumbling across a lost episode of The Twilight Zone, familiar but somehow unsettling.
Some of the finest stories in the book are the ones with nary a whisper of the supernatural, leading you to believe that Hill could have a solid career as a writer of mainstream literary fiction. “The Widow’s Breakfast” is a stark portrait of despair and wounded hearts the feels remarkably relevant despite its Depression-era setting. “Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead” distracts you with its unique setting, then spins an initial feeling of hopelessness in a different direction altogether. And “Better Than Home” is so good that you’re left hoping it’s part of a longer work, an excerpt from a novel that might appear some day. All of these tales could have been mere literary exercises — a period piece, a slice of career and domestic angst, an extended character sketch — but are developed by Hill into full-blown, living, breathing works of fiction.
It would be tempting to say the mainstream stories are the best in the book, but that would overlook too many other achievements: the surprising twist on a familiar genre character in “Abraham’s Boys,” the trapped-in-the-lair claustrophobia of “The Black Phone,” and the two stories that sit side-by-side to close the collection.
“My Father’s Mask” may well be one of the most unusual horror tales you’ll ever read, but what a story it is, complex enough to be debated in college literature classes, deep enough to be the subject of term papers, baffling enough to be interpreted and reinterpreted endlessly for the next 20 years, but bone-cold frightening enough to satisfy the most jaded genre fans. It’s the kind of tale you finish, sit back, and realize you’re exhausted, perhaps even realize that you were reading paragraphs at a time without taking a breath. Like the stories mentioned above, it demonstrates Hill’s fearlessness from concept to execution, but also shows off his other hallmarks, most notably his use of the language itself, which is never overblown or overdone, always simple and clear. He never sets a scene with ten sentences when two will do. He never uses words because they’re pretty, but because they work transparently; they service the story, not the writer’s ego. There is a paragraph in “My Father’s Mask,” a straightforward description of the main character looking out his window in the middle of the night, five sentences with nothing purplish or feverish about them, but they will raise goosebumps and might even make you glance toward your own window, just to be sure the drapes are drawn. It’s the kind of thing Hill manages to do again and again, telling you just enough to get the job done, even if you can’t always figure out exactly how he did it.
Then there is “Voluntary Committal,” the concluding, longest and arguably best story in the book. Like many of the tales that come before, it is intimate, character-driven, nostalgic and elegiac, well-structured, perfectly paced. It’s also a stunning example of Lovecraftian horror, but played so quietly, to such a slow-building but ultimately powerful effect, that it leaves you simultaneously drained and exhilarated.
It’s not easy to write a good short story. Thankfully, there are those like Joe Hill who know how to do it, who have mastered the skill, the art and the enchantment. 20th Century Ghosts is his calling card, and it leaves you eagerly waiting for all that’s yet to come.