20th Century Ghosts is a collection of short stories by author Joe Hill.
I have been trying very hard to keep up with Joe Hill’s releases in order to keep my rankings of Hill’s books up to date. However, like his father Stephen King, he has emerged as a powerhouse that is constantly releasing new books and stories and shows no signs of slowing down. Well, this is a good thing.
His latest full collection of shorts, 20th Century Ghosts, is another winner from the new horror master. The collection focuses on horrors placed during the 20th century, not quite modern but not quite old either. Some of these stories are some of the best I’ve read all year. The middle stretch falls a little flat in my opinion and includes a couple of more dull or less original entries. Overall, the book’s good outweighs the bad. Here’s a breakdown:
Best New Horror
Eddie is an editor for a horror magazine. He’s been at it for so long that he’s seen everything and is becoming agonizingly bored. That is, until he reads a story called Buttonboy.
The story within a story is merely a summary of this new horror masterpiece and just that summary is some of the best horror I’ve read in a while. This kicked 20th Century Ghosts off to great start.
The editor goes on a search to find the mysterious author who wrote this story. He must meet the man himself but his adventure is not what he expected.
20th Century Ghost
Alec’s movie theater has a ghost. She appears to patrons as the movie plays. This rumor has driven business to the theater and kept the now old man in a meager but comfortable lifestyle. He can always tell the fakers from the ones who really see his ghost as their experiences stand out.
The body of the story is fairly average but the ending is fantastic. Joe Hill has a knack for endings. Many auteurs struggle with this but the ending to this story kicked the rating up a full star.
Pop Art ended up being one of my favorite stories of the whole book. The beginning caught me off guard but once I leaned into the unusual concept I was able to love the premise and its message.
The narrator’s best friend is inflatable. He’s a blow up person. Like a balloon in the vague shape of a person. He’s sentient and can communicate by writing with crayons. His mitten like hands don’t have much dexterity. This ailment is explained with a brief dismissal, it skips a generation, don’t worry about it.
Once you accept that this character is a balloon it’s easy to see through the silly concept and discover a sweet story about a young man and his terminally ill best friend. Inflatable people are far more susceptible to danger than the rest of us and he must come to terms with his likely shorter life span. Once again Hill nails the ending.
You Will Hear the Locust Sing
You’ll hear of many stories being described as Kafkaesque. Most people who use this term have never actually read Kafka. I have but it’s been a while. Now, most people are vaguely familiar with his story The Metamorphosis in which the main character wakes up as a bug. The same thing happens here to Francis Kay. Francis Kay, Franz Kafke, get it?
However, this story isn’t exactly Kafkaesque as far as mood and themes go. It merely shares the same beginning but then puts a Hill spin on it. This bug boy isn’t going to just sit by and accept his bullying and troubled home life anymore. He has a plan.
Francis Kay proceeds to commit some acts that are surely considered controversial to put on paper. Sensitive subject matter should be explored in horror and Hill is not squeamish.
I think this was my favorite story of the book. This is the one that should be a movie. Not The Black Phone. This one is way better.
Max and Rudy are young brothers who have an abusive and very strict father who never wants them out of the home after dark. One evening they decide to violate the privacy of his locked study and discover who their father really is and why they should be afraid of the dark.
I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns of this one, you’ll have to read it for yourself to see the greatness.
Better than Home
Better than Home is an example within this book that makes it not a full horror collection. Hill plays with genres and doesn’t box himself in creativity wise.
It’s the story of a father and his son. The son is likely autistic, before that diagnosis was well known. His baseball coach dad is surprisingly good with his behavior and becomes a safe haven for him when everyone else thinks he’s strange, sick, or just has an attitude problem.
The Black Phone
I had really enjoyed all of the stories up to this point in the book so I was very excited to read The Black Phone. It’s already been turned into a movie so I figured it must be one of the best ones. I didn’t see the movie so I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was very disappointed with what I read.
It’s an extremely basic kidnapping story. Also there’s a phone. It doesn’t really matter. The phone could have been anything really. This story fell flat and kicks off the sluggish mid section of the short story collection.
In the Rundown
Another duller story within this collection. Wyatt is fired from his job at the video store. On this bad day he sees a bleeding woman and her possibly dead son in a car. He does his best to help them, there’s a kind of sort of twist. Nothing Special.
Okay. I’m going to be honest for this one. I skipped it. I very recently read the graphic novel adaptation that Hill did so it’s pretty fresh on my mind. I imagine since he did both they are very similar. I loved the graphic novel version, go ahead and pick your format and give it a shot. I have a full review of The Cape as well.
This one is interesting but a wee bit underwhelming.
Alinger operates the Museum of Silence. A place where he collects the last breaths of people in jars. You can listen to each individual’s certain brand of silence with a sort of stethoscope. A family arrives at the museum, the son and father are interested but the mother is disgusted by the idea.
I like the concept a lot but didn’t LOVE the story. I liked it enough I guess though.
Dead-Wood is the shortest story in 20th Century Ghosts, just a couple of pages. It’s a short musing on the ghosts of dead trees and how that concept links to personal grief. It’s melancholy.
The Widow’s Breakfast
Killian just lost his best friend. They were both riding the rails and he was killed by an over zealous patrolman. He needs to get back on track but is lost without his friend. He arrives at a widow’s house and she is incredibly generous with food and clothing.
This is the only story that I would have preferred a different ending. Since this is mostly a horror collection it does have an eerie twist. However, I was hoping that it would set us up for a scare but end up just being a nice story about a kind woman helping a stranger. I think that would have been nice and more unexpected than the actual ending. Instead it ended how I figured it would, predictable.
Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead
Bobby is on the set on the Romero movie Dawn of the Dead. Made up as a zombie extra he spots a zombie he knows. His ex girlfriend is also an extra and he’s thrilled to see her. He has thought about her often and has been dying to reconnect.
Turns out, she has her son with her and a wedding ring on her finger. In classic romance movie style he demands to know how she could choose this other man when he, Bobby, wasn’t even in the picture. I really hate this trope, it’s offensive to assume that a nice stable guy who’s biggest sin is being a little boring is worse than a passionate love affair from youth.
The ending is left a bit open to interpretation. I choose to believe that she goes home with her husband and son and has a nice life with him. When you’re all adulted up and married like me you realize that stability and a few boring days are more desirable than all the stress and heartbreak of passion with an actor.
My Father’s Mask
My Father’s Mask is maybe the strangest story in 20th Century Ghosts. A pair of younger parents, still young enough to make uncomfortable sex jokes and be the target of crushes by the son’s friends, take their 13 year old boy to one of their late Grandfather’s properties for a weekend.
When they arrive the boy sees that there is a collection of very odd masks. His mom, which is known to tell tall tales and exaggerate everything, tells him that he must wear one or “the card people” will get him. Throughout the story he discovers that maybe some of her tall tales might be based in truth.
The story is relatively creepy but ultimately doesn’t make a lot of sense and I’m not sure what exactly the ending means.
The final story in the collection is essentially House of Leaves but with a cardboard fort.
The narrator is recalling his youth, telling the story of his bother who was later diagnosed with schizophrenia and the story of another boy who went missing. The two stories are, of course, connected by the end.
The brother, Morris, likes to build cardboard forts but mysterious things happen within them. The family just thinks it’s strange behavior but it turns out to be much much more than just the project of a madman. I did like this story, but I’m not sure if I would have liked it more or less if I hadn’t already read House of Leaves. If you are fresh to this story please let me know how you liked it in the comments.
4/5 ghosts 👻👻👻👻
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For more short stories check out Things Happen
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