Wednesday 25 May 2011

Book Review - 20th Century Ghosts

I'd never heard of Joe Hill when I picked up a copy of 20th Century Ghosts for the princely sum of £3 in HMV. The accepted wisdom in publishing circles is that short story collections don't sell particularly well, but personally, I prefer them as an introduction to a writer. Indeed, I discovered Neil Gaiman through his Smoke and Mirrors collection, and Clive Barker through his Books of Blood. The advantage of collections over novels is that it's ok if one story sucks, you can skip it and go onto the next one. To my mind, they're a better advert for the range of styles a writer can do. But that's just me.

So my interest in ghost stories, my leanings towards collections and the shockingly low price were all factors in my picking up 20th Century Ghosts. The blurb reads thus; "Imogene is young, beautiful, kisses like a movie star, and knows everything about every film ever made. She's also dead, the legendary ghost of the Rosebud Theater. Arthur Roth is a lonely kid with a head full of big ideas and a gift for getting his ass kicked. It's hard to make friends when you're the only inflatable boy in town. Francis is unhappy, picked on; he doesn't have a life, a hope, a chance. Francis was human once, but that's behind him now. John Finney is in trouble. The kidnapper locked him in a basement, a place stained with the blood of half a dozen other murdered children. With him, in his subterranean cell, is an antique phone, long since disconnected . . . but it rings at night, anyway, with calls from the dead. . . Meet these, and a dozen more, in 20TH CENTURY GHOSTS, irresistible, addictive fun showcasing a dazzling new talent."

There's certainly a range of stories on display here, and indeed some of them aren't even ghost stories. You Will Hear The Locust Sing recalls 1950s sci-fi pulp, Abraham's Boys tells a Van Helsing story, and The Cape is a superhero horror tale. The stories stay with you long after you're finished - so while the stories might not necessarily be about ghosts, they're definitely haunting. My own personal favourites are 20th Century Ghost, about a movie-loving ghost who haunts a cinema, The Black Phone, about a boy struggling to escape a kidnapper using supernatural help, and Voluntary Committal, a novella that explores mental illness and the bonds of family within a narrative framework of dark fantasy.

There may be far too much emphasis on baseball within the stories, although I'm sure this is purely due to the fact that I'm a UK reader and have no interest in baseball. If you're not a baseball fan, and you don't understand the mythology surrounding it (the first time a boy plays catch with his dad, or the first time he goes to a game) then these stories will fall a little flat. I suppose it would be the same if an English author tried to describe his love of going to see a first division team on a Saturday afternoon, despite the fact they've never won a match in three months. Some of the stories don't work but that's ok - there are plenty of enjoyable stories in this collection, stories that really will work their way into your brain and get you thinking.Great for a quick read - and based on this, I'd definitely try one of his novels.

Four blunt pencils out of five.


John Xero said...

He's Stephen King's son, by the way. And you've got to respect a guy who goes out of his way to make it on his own rather than just cashing in on his father's name.

I've never got round to reading any, always meant to pick up his supposedly excellent comic book series (Locke and Key).

I agree with you on short stories, and it's a great shame they're not so popular. I quite often keep a display of short fiction on the shop floor and it does get a lot of interest, especially if you get a good mix of old and new.

If you can find a copy (it's out of print now, unfortunately) then Black Juice by Margo Lanagan is one of the best collections I've ever read. Her writing is gorgeous.

Icy Sedgwick said...

Wow, I didn't know he's Stephen King's son! I wonder if that would have made any difference if I'd known beforehand. I'm a big fan of Margaret Atwood's short stories too.

John Wiswell said...

Darn, John spoiled my joke. I was going to say you'd probably heard of his dad, the king of the hill.

I do respect people who go out of their way to avoid legacy perks, though he has co-authored stuff with King. I've got some of his shorts and intend to give him a good-faith reading.

Anonymous said...

I would recommend you read Heart Shaped Box by Joe Hillstrom King (Joe Hill) - grabbed me and knocked my little pink slippers fair across the room.

One of my favourite five books - ever!

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