20th Century Ghosts

Joe Hill
20th Century Ghosts Cover

20th Century Ghosts


Joe Hill is, I think, a much better writer and storyteller than his father, Stephen King. While I enjoyed his novel Heart-Shaped Box, his earlier collection of short stories has a special kind of charm. Like any volume of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts has its hits and its misses, but even the imperfect tales are far more interesting than you would have any reason to expect. The book was published a few years before Hill was "outed" as Stephen King's son, and while it's not entirely fair to compare any artist to his close relations, it's quite impossible to avoid. But as I said, I believe Hill comes out as the winner in the comparison. I have yet to read his second novel Horns, but I have little doubt it will be worthwhile.

Not every story found within is a horrific or even a darkly fantastic story, and according to Christopher Golden's introduction some of them were written for literary magazines (a term Golden somehow finds despicable). But if the horror tales are not overly concerned with terror and fright to the exclusion of literary art, the literary tales have plenty of horror of their own.

The Mediocre:

Not every tale in 20th Century Ghosts is a winner, but even these aren't without some enjoyable elements.

"Better Than Home" -- I really wanted to like this story, even though it was one of the "boring" literary ones. The mentally ill son of a baseball manager copes with growing up. While it was insightful and well-written, there wasn't much of an ending. It felt like setup for a longer work that never materialized.

"In the Rundown" -- Another starter that never quite feels like it finishes. A disgruntled young video store worker comes across something terrible in the woods. A great fragment of a horror tale.

"Dead-Wood" -- A two-page essay concerning the possibility of trees leaving ghosts behind. It reads like notes for an unwritten story.

"The Widow's Breakfast" -- The tale of a hobo who jumps off a train and stumbles to the woodland house of a recent widow and her daughters. It had the opportunity to be really creepy, but ended before it could get anywhere.

The Good:

"Best New Horror" -- A jaded editor of horror anthologies finds a story that reinvigorates his love of the genre. He tries to hunt down the story's author, but may not like what he finds. It's an interesting look at horror publishing from the other side.

"Pop Art" -- A boy from a troubled home makes friends with an inflatable boy made of plastic. Hill plays it straight, as though being an inflatable person is a rare but known disorder. Not scary, but sad and winsome.

"You Will Hear the Locust Sing" -- At the beginning of this wonderful mashup of old monster movies and Kafka, "Francis Kay woke from dreams that were not uneasy, but exultant, and found himself an insect." While the transformation of Kafka's hero Gregor Samsa ended in despair and death, Francis Kay's similar mutation ends also in death, but in the sort dealt out to others.

"Abraham's Boys" -- The continuing adventures of Abraham Van Helsing after he migrates to America, as told by his sons, who don't take well to being trained as vampire hunters when they have no reason to believe such monsters even exist. Perhaps the worst monsters are the living.

"Last Breath" -- A short tale about a peculiar museum of seemingly empty jars. Each one, the proprietor tells his visitors, contains the last breath of a dying person. The story is sad rather than frightening, and there is a sense of grim inevitability about the ending.

"Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead" -- Two zombies find love. Well, two people dressed up as zombie extras for Romero's Dawn of the Dead back in the '70s find love. Not a horror story despite the horror trappings. Literary fiction in the best sense of the term.

"My Father's Mask" -- A slow build into a masquerade of madness. I would rank this higher, except that it's not quite complete enough. I'm unsure what's missing, but it's like tasting a cake taken out of the oven 15 minutes too soon. Still tasty, but it could have been better with just a little more baking.

The Great:

"20th Century Ghost" -- Imogene Gilchrist died as a teenager in the middle of The Wizard of Oz, and has been watching movies in the same theater ever since. She doesn't approve of all of the movies, nor of all the theater's owners. Strangely enough, this is more of a love story than a horror story. Keep your eyes peeled for a Steven Spielberg cameo under a different name.

"The Black Phone" -- If ever there was a time when Hill was riffing on his father's stories, it was this one. Come on, a part-time clown who carries balloons and kidnaps children? A psychic sister? A phone which only receives calls from the dead? King would have squeezed a 400-page novel out of this idea. Hill manages near perfection in 20.

"The Cape" -- Hill's horror-tinged take on the superhero genre. It's hard to describe why I like this story without giving away the ending. Just read it.

"Voluntary Committal" -- Not a short story but a novella. Hill gives himself plenty of space to develop and explore in this one. An autistic boy with a talent for small-scale architecture builds labyrinths out of cardboard boxes in the family's basement. Some of the tunnels are innocent enough, but others seem to go nowhere, and still others go somewhere you might not ever want to be. I would love to see this one adapted as a film or a comic book, because it's so visually rich.


It's rare to complete a volume of short stories and not feel that--except for maybe two exceptional stories you had already read before--you've wasted your time. 20th Century Ghosts was a page-turner, even through the stories that ended up disappointing. Perhaps it's not "pure horror," but as dark fantasy it does quite well.