20th Century Ghosts * Joe Hill

It’s been a while. Ever since I read the Full Dark, No Stars stories compilation by Stephen King and the Obsession anthology that I felt chills running down my spine with each story told. I could not handle more than one story a day, read in the dwindling sunlight on my phone (yes, I got the e-Book). From the story of a ghost girl appearing in an old-time theatre to view each movie, to a maze of boxes that goes no-where, to masks and people in the woods that are not what they seem to be.


It’s the fear of the unknown that scares me (and also thrills me). And that’s a sign of a good book.

“Most of my stories are really that simple. They’re built around the collision of the real and the impossible…” from an interview with Joe Hill by Daniel M. Jaffe on the web site Biblio Buffet.


Seeing-this-giant-ant-scared-the-Hell-out-of-me-the-first-time“You Will Hear the Locust Sing” is like Kafka’s The Metamorphosis set during a 1950’s giant bug movie. In “You Will Hear The Locust Sing,” it’s not Gregor Samsa who wakes up as a giant cockroach, but a boy raised on the nuclear paranoia of B-movies like “The Fly” and Them!
, and who sees the change as much as an opportunity as a curse. The costs of the transformation are not overlooked—it is made very plain that the boy, Francis, is no longer human, and that his human instincts are subsiding—but where Kafka’s outsider was crushed by his alienation, Hill’s is energized by it. The story is driven by anger.

“Abraham’s Boys” is his take on the Van Helsing character from Dracula. “20th Century Ghost” is a nostalgic homage to both film history, in general, and Steven Spielberg, in particular.

Better Than Home – This was an odd story involving a kid who suffers from anxiety attacks whose father is a professional baseball manager. It was fairly entertaining and even humorous at times, but I’m not really sure that I got the point.

Best New Horror – An interesting start to the collection. The editor of a compendium called the America’s Best Horror receives a tale that he feels must be included in his next volume. The trouble is, he can’t get in contact with the author. This leads to an obsessive and creepy search for the mysterious author. I thought that this story had a pretty good build up to a satisfying conclusion. Even though the reader pretty much knew where the tale was going, it was kind of like watching a good cheesy horror movie where you keep telling the character, “Hey, don’t do that!” or “Why the Hell are you going in there?” Good, good fun.

20th-century-ghosts-10th-anniversary-deluxe-edition-by-joe-hill-[3]-3545-p20th Century Ghost – This story takes place in a movie theater and revolves around the current theater manager and the ghost that haunts it. I really enjoyed this one. Even though it has a ghost, it’s not at all a horror story so much a fond recollection of the life of a movie theater and the effort of one individual to contact those that loved the theater in order to make an effort to save it.

I think my favorite was “Pop Art,” a fable of an inflatable teen, and his best friend, who happens to have a nasty father with a vicious dog. There’s authentic emotional depth in these tales.

I found an online copy of the story here.

I want to see if it’s true. If the sky opens up at the top.



In the Rundown – A video store employee, who used to be a fairly good athlete but because of a learning disability lost confidence in himself and lost the opportunities to better his life, discovers a macabre crime scene on his way home. This one had a good premise and a nice build up, but really left you hanging in the end. I had my suspicions as to how this story would turn out, only to not have anything confirmed as it just ended in the middle of the climax.I had to turn the page back again to make sure I didn’t miss the ending as it finishes quite abruptly.

hobo_wiki_symbol_illoThe Widow’s Breakfast – A hobo who’s friend dies jumps off of a train before reaching a depot where a nasty watchman is rumored to reside and encounters a very strange family. This story was pretty well written and an interesting read but the creepy element felt forced and squeezed in to me. The two girls outside are creepy as hell but the game they are playing is creepier still. This story isn’t anything spectacular or amazing, it’s basically more or less it’s sum parts. The message of grievance and generosity is a very touching one. It isn’t a long story and it’s over before it can really pick up or go anywhere. I mostly accept it for what it is, It’s a tale of the lost who are still trying to find their way. Some find it through helping others and others find it through people who want to help.


In “Voluntary Committal,” a seriously schizophrenic Morris Lerner, builder of elaborate basement cardboard box mazes, helps out his older brother by getting rid of a nasty pal.


The title “20th Century Ghosts” couldn’t be more accurate, because these stories all feature characters that are haunted–haunted by their pasts, by inner demons, by troubled childhoods, and horrible secrets. Identity seems to be the common theme that connects these stories–how do we decide who we are? In “Voluntary Committal”, the existential question is asked again in a more subtle form:


It seems to me the quality that separates the popular from the unpopular—the one and only quality that Eddie Prior and Cameron Hodges had in common—is a strong sense of self. Eddie knew who he was. He accepted himself. His failings had ceased to trouble him. Every word he spoke was a thoughtless, pure expression of his true personality. Whereas I had no clear picture of myself, and  was always looking to others, watching them intently, both hoping and fearing that I would catch some clear sign of who they saw when they looked at me.

“The Cape” is both a realistic character study and a superhero origin story. A boy wearing his special blanket as a superhero cape manages to float a little in the air before crashing down and breaking his leg. His brother saw him and a week later, he tried on the cape and crashed down the stairs in the house.

“It was my cape” the younger brother thinks as he sits in the hospital next to his brother. Years later, after failing to get a job and moving back to his parent’s home, the younger brother finds the cape and finds out how to fly it properly. Wearing it, he floats out the window to his former girlfriend’s place and like a vampire in the old movies, he asks to be let in.


The horror is subtle as he is more of a peeping tom than an actual hero and as he lifts up his former girlfriend, he keeps asking her about who she was on the phone with when he came. He then proceeds to drop her from the air, killing her and then musing about his future. “I might fly to see my brother.”

“My Father’s Mask” is probably the least traditional, most surreal story in the book. In some ways it recalls Kelly Link’s more disquieting stories, with a sense that reality is perhaps just too far off course to wrench back to normality, and an ending that we are almost glad un-tells the story, even if we aren’t sure why. The story centers around a teenager whose parents decide on the spur of the moment to go to his deceased grandfather’s lake house for the weekend. Strange events ensue and everyone is forced to wear masks to distinguish them from the evil playing-card people. The masks that people wear define them.


I took the story to be a kind of metaphor for that time in your young adulthood when you realize that your parents are sexual beings, that they have the same strange secrets that you think are all your own. We all grow up assuming that our parents are so lame and could never have the same social and personal attachments that we do. But they do and often times their adolescent experiences are much more unnerving than we could ever imagine. Not to mention that quiet almost conspiratorial relationship you have when you are married to someone that really gets you. It must be interesting to see that from the eyes of the child of that relationship.
All the odd, surreal things you see in your parents you will soon become.

The “Dead-Wood” story features a town being overtaken by ghost trees.

Last Breath” shows a museum proprietor with a most macabre exhibition to show – the silence that comes with the last breadth. The basic set up is simple enough, in that a family visits a museum where both famous and not so famous “last breaths” are bottled up and displayed in a exhibit. A man named Alinger is the host of the exhibit and it is revealed that he collects the last dying breaths of those he encounters dying. Being a doctor of sorts it allows him many opportunities to come across the final breaths I suppose.

The story ends as the housewife, rattled by the last breath of a young woman, rushes outside where she is hit by a car. The woman’s boy extends the machine to the museum owner, asking him to grab his mother’s last breadth and exhibit it forever.

Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead” features two high school sweethearts reuniting after many years as zombie extras in George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”. It’s sweet sometimes not to have an element of horror but the dread to be still palpable.


Old black phone with dust and scratches, isolated on white background
The phone rings for who needs to hear it

“The Black Phone,” a story that demonstrates Hill doesn’t reinvent the wheel when he doesn’t have to.

John Finney is abducted by a grotesquely fat man called Al, locked in a cellar and kept there for days without food or water. It is also a story you’ve read before, and it stands or falls with its atmosphere: a tense, claustrophobic closeness. As it is, when John receives a call on the black phone—the old-fashioned one, with a dial, that’s not connected to the wall—we don’t know whether what he hears is an auditory hallucination, or a genuinely supernatural message. The phone rings at night with the whispers of the kidnapper’s previous (and now dead) victims


Afterword – Be sure to read the afterword, Mr. Hill has included a bonus story in here!

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