20th Century Ghosts (Book)
Reviewed by Johnny Butane
Written by Joe Hill
Published by PS Publishing
At the 2nd annual Rock & Shock convention a few weeks back, I finally got to meet one of my favorite authors, who also happens to be a fellow Mass-hole like myself, Christopher Golden. Shortly after introducing myself and my wife, also a big Golden fan, Chris introduced me to Joe Hill, who was sharing a booth with him. Golden had written the intro for Joe’s debut book, 20th Century Ghosts and could not stop raving about what a great writer the guy was. All right, I’ll bite. PS Publishing sent me a copy of the book for me to make my own judgments, and I’m pleased to report he was not over-hyped in the least.
My first question is simply, where the hell did this guy come from? It’s so rare that an author is able to come right out of the gates with such incredible talent, such a feel for storytelling, pacing, and character development, I thought for sure I had just missed some of this earlier works. Such is not the case, however, as Ghosts is his first published collection. And what a collection it is!
Containing 14 stories ranging from out-and-out horror to more subtle character pieces, 20th Century Ghosts is truly a remarkable debut. From the first story, "Best New Horror", all the way through to "Voluntary Commital", Joe exhibits the kind of skill most writers struggle their whole lives to attain. I guess some people truly are born to be storytellers. Here are some of the highlights:
"Best New Horror" is the tale of the editior of a horror magazine and series of books who is always trying to find the absolute best horror on the market. After years of putting out the titular publication, he’s become jaded and cynical with the realization that most new horror is just a recycled version of the old stuff. One day he receives a package in the mail with a short story in it that got its author fired from his job at a nearby school because of its content, after the story caused all manner of negative feedback from the school’s enrolled. Indeed, it is the most exciting piece of horror literature our main character has read in many years, and he immediately sets out to find its elusive author. When he does track the man down, though, he realizes that sometimes it takes a truly twisted mind to create truly twisted fiction.
Then there’s the story "Pop Art", which is about a million miles away from the gritty feeling of "Best New Horror". It focuses on the terrors of being different and unable to fit in, written from the perspective of a man whose childhood friend was a kid named Art. Art was different because he was made of plastic; quite literally he was inflatable and only weighed about 7 ounces. While this premise might seem ridiculous, something that could be played for nothing but laughs, Hill manages to concoct a story that is sure to resonate with anyone who was ever shunned growing up because of their difference from the rest of society. It’s touching and heartbreaking, played completely straight from beginning to end, and truly one of the best stories of any genre I’ve had the pleasure to read.
"Abraham’s Boys" is the story that introduced Golden to Joe Hill, as they had both contributed to a collection of short stories about vampires, and stands out simply because of the realism it takes with its approach to Abraham Van Helsing and how his sons might see his world view and his work. That’s really all I want to tell you about it, save for that it’s an amazing piece of fiction. Of course, pretty much everything in this collection is.
"The Cape" was the one that got me the most, though, mainly because of its conclusion. It’s about a man who, as a boy, had a cape that could actually allow him to fly. His brother tried to use it once and ended up smashing his face to pieces, so his mother says she threw it away. Now grown and bitter because his life didn’t turn out the way he’d hoped, he finds his missing "cape" in his mother’s basement and decides to pick up flying where he left off. Truly one of the most "HOLY SHIT!" endings I’ve read in a long, long time.
I did have some issues with other tales within, and it’s really the only reason I’m not giving this a straight 5 out of 5. Some, not all, of the stories end far too abruptly. I’m sure there are a few that were intended to end that way, but some of them just feel like he ran out of things to say. I’d almost rather the ending be a letdown in some cases than to have it just end, because you turn the page and you don’t feel like you’ve gotten the complete tale; but I guess when you're the writer and you feel a story’s done, it’s done.
That very minor complaint aside, 20th Century Ghosts is the kind of collection I’ve been waiting years for; fresh stories with a feel for pacing and characters that are almost unparalleled. Joe Hill is a great new talent, and I’m going to be following his works very closely over the coming years. He recently completed his first novel, Heart Shaped Box, which I hope to have in my hands as soon as humanly possible. For now, visit one of the links above, or the one below, to get the book. You won’t be sorry you did.
4 ½ out of 5
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