Published by HarperCollins Publishers, William Morrow Books on 16th October 2007
Genres: Adult, Contemporary, Fantasy, Horror
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A collection of short stories.
Imogene is young and beautiful. She kisses like a movie star and knows everything about every film ever made. She's also dead and waiting in the Rosebud Theater for Alec Sheldon one afternoon in 1945...
Arthur Roth is a lonely kid with big ideas and a gift for attracting abuse. It isn't easy to make friends when you're the only inflatable boy in town...
Francis is unhappy. Francis was human once, but that was then. Now he's an eight-foot-tall locust and everyone in Calliphora will tremble when they hear him sing...
John Finney is locked in a basement that's stained with the blood of half a dozen other murdered children. In the cellar with him is an antique telephone, long since disconnected, but which rings at night with calls from the dead...
The past isn't dead. It isn't even past...
If there is but one thing that I truly adore about Stephen King’s work, it is his penchant for crafting consistently interesting short stories. Granted, the quality of his storytelling tends to vary quite broadly from one tableau to the next, and his tone can vary so dramatically that it is oftentimes difficult to maintain a stable understanding and mindset towards what he is trying to accomplish in the space of some dozen pages at a time. Still, his entries are always, if nothing else, entertaining, with at least one wonderfully weird, wonderfully unsettling idea or detail to make the brief journey in one way or another worthwhile.
I bring this up because Joe Hill strikes me as being much the same sort of writer as his father. In fact, I could easily see 20th Century Ghosts as being a work stemmed from the elder King’s pen, so similar is Hill’s wordplay and imagination. This isn’t to take anything away from this book or its author, of course. Hill proves himself an obviously capable writer and visionary, his stylistic choices and worldbuilding functioning as proper escapism (and good, old-fashioned fun) from beginning to end despite the occasional weak point or off-putting shift in direction. No, I bring the comparison up as a means of making the following review a bit more succinct. If you have read such collections as King’s Four Past Midnight or Nightmares and Dreamscapes (two of my favorites by him, incidentally), you’ll like as not have a fairly good idea of how you will feel about Hill’s omnibus.
Still, regardless of how you may feel about either author’s bibliography or personal style, I can’t help but believe that there is at least one entry in this collection for every reader. What I find so delightful about the anthology format is its sheer variety, asking of one’s patience and interest only short bursts of sustained commitment. If you find yourself bored with a particular story and its characters, chances are that the one waiting only a few pages away will be better worth your while. It’s a game of chance that is continually throwing something new your way, and the entire experience adds up to one of unabated expectation and curiosity as you prepare for one adventure after another.
Of course, the style does make such a work an odd one to review. As a whole, 20th Century Ghosts is a decent compilation, but the aforementioned inconsistency is on full display here, helped along in no small part by the fact that Hill did not seem to have a particular theme in mind when stitching together his literary chimera. Despite its cover and opening selections, the book is not the wholly frightening one that you may at first expect. Horror undoubtedly has its fair share of space amongst this assemblage, but it is not the only sort of story given its due. While most of the entries do contain traces of the supernatural and macabre, the degree to which these elements play a part in each tale changes considerably from one to the next. As a consequence, 20th Century Ghosts is less a body of recurrent spooks and shadows than it is an adventure in genre variety.
Some are straightforward (even stereotypical) frightfests that play out in mostly predictable ways. The opening “Best New Horror” piece details an editor searching for the author of one very disturbing submission, and his journey devolves into the sort of nightmare that one has seen time and again in slasher flicks, while the titular “20th Century Ghost” and its descriptions of an old theater and its ghastly apparition captures the same blending of gore and poeticism that is typical of King and other such writers.
Some use darkness not as a scare tactic but as means of conveying mankind’s routine drama and experiences, resulting in stories that are not so much scary as they are merely interesting in their fusing of humanistic tragedies with otherworldly specters. The exploration of a child’s plight at the hands of a serial killer in “The Black Phone” and the details of a decidedly odd museum of final exhalations and parting words in “Last Breath” come to mind.
Some are more fantasy than thriller, with implausible premises that are more bizarre than unsettling and end abruptly. The account of a man rediscovering his ability to fly thanks to a childhood blanket in “The Cape” and the Kafka-esque ordeal of a boy who wakes up from his unassuming life one morning as an enormous insect in “You Will Hear the Locust Sing”clearly demonstrate this.
And some care very little for the unexplained or uncanny, and instead use their fairly levelheaded presentations to paint melancholy portraits of love, loss, and acceptance in unexpectedly moving ways. “Better Than Home” finds a troubled son recounting his love for his father and his baseball team in a way that seems more appropriate for a heartwarming contemporary novel, but is a treasure nonetheless. Most notably, however, is “Pop Art” – the coming-of-age plot that tells of the friendship between two boys. One suffers through a dysfunctional home life and social ostracism, while the other must live a fragile and mocked existence as one sentient but made of inflatable plastic rather than skin and bone. Yes, it is a strange concept, and one that isn’t really explored, but the ideas that Hill does pursue make for a truly excellent tale that may very well be one of the best short stories that I’ve read in years.
It is doubtful that one will truly like every piece found here, but so too is it unlikely that one will dislike them all. The important thing to note is that the highs and lows are evenly spread throughout and for the most part mild in their permutations, and should consequently ensure an engaging reading experience from beginning to end.
20th Century Ghosts is a decent collection of work, though perhaps not as consistently great or memorable as one may hope. Still, it is an easy enough read, and like to provide anyone who may pick it up with at least one adventure worth cherishing. That, I think, makes it worthwhile if nothing else. Whatever your favorite may be, hold onto it, and remember more what Hill was able to do for you in these pages than what he was not.