Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Okay, not really. But I did recently read Joe Hill's story collection 20th Century Ghosts and I still have songs from the new Band of Horses stuck in my head. So, that explains the lame title. Anyway, this is the second book from Hill I've read this year (I read his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, back in March) and also the second short story collection I've read (I read Fast Forward 1 back in late February and early March, right before the Hill).

You would expect this to be a collection of horror stories and the lead story, "Best New Horror," seems to back that up. Eddie Carroll is the editor of Best New Horror, an long-running anthology series. He's done it for so long that he is bored with the job and bored with the fiction he has to read for it every year. Then he's sent a story that is a breath of fresh air and also disturbing. He tracks down the author and finds himself in the middle of a horror tale himself.

Hill isn't after bloody horror, though. He's more interested in psychology, the human condition. Interested in not only the straight-forward (relatively) but also the odd. He also delivers quality fiction.

"20th Century Ghost" tells the tale of a theater that is haunted by a ghost, though that ghost only appears to certain people. She's a bloody ghost but she's also a movie buff and materializes to catch quality movies. It's also a love story and very effective.

"Pop Art" is about the relationship between a troublemaker and an "inflatable boy." It's sweet and odd and feels very real.

"Abraham's Boys" is the story of the two Van Helsing boys (whose mother was Mina). What they go through living with their father, what they learn, and what they do is very chilling.

There are very creepy stories as well. "The Black Phone" is about a kidnapping and a phone connected to nothing that rings with calls from the dead. "In the Rundown" has an angry kid come upon a scene of such horror that he doesn't know what to do.

"Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead" contains no horror elements outside of it being set during the shooting of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. Instead, it's a relationship story and is very well done.

Some of my favorite stories all full of weirdness. "Last Breath" features a museum of the last breaths of the dead. "The Cape" deals with a person who can fly and what it does to him (and what he does to others). "My Father's Mask" is almost beyond description, a story full of imagery and games and full of meaning that is only grasped subsconciously.

All of Hill's talents come to fruition in the final story, "Voluntary Committal" (which also happens to be the longest story, novella-length). It features relationships between boys, between brothers, dark impulses, mental illness, and compelling strangeness. It is a fantastic and disturbing story, easily one of the best I've read all year.

20th Century Ghosts was originally published in the UK in 2005 but it wasn't widely available. Between this collection and the novel, Joe Hill is having a great year. I will definitely pick up his next book.

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