Sunday, 11 September 2011

"20th Century Ghosts," by Joe Hill

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I know Joe Hill as a writer of horror fiction.  One of my early reviews when I started this blog was on his novel, "Horns."  The first book of his that I read, "Heart-shaped Box," is probably still my favourite of his books.  You won't find a review of this on my blog, as I read it before I started writing here, but I do intend to re-read it and write about it at some point.  I'm not a big reader of short stories - with the exception of masters of the form such as Conan Doyle or M.R. James - so it is quite unusual for me to pick up a short story collection.  However, as I enjoyed what I had read by Joe Hill so far, I thought that I would give his collection of short stories, "20th Century Ghosts," a whirl.

Like any collection of short stories, there are some that appeal more than others.  I was a bit too squeamish for the bodily excretions of "You Will Hear the Locust Sing," which owes a debt to Kafka's "Metamorphosis."  My favourite stories in the collection were ones that I didn't find out-and-out horrific or scary - Hill's stories are often more subtle than that - but rather are unsettling in a way that is not easy to define.  One of the stories which has stuck with me most, "In the Rundown," has no supernatural element.  It is unresolved and ambiguous - although there is a strong suggestion of where it is heading, and it isn't good for the protagonist - and I found this story very unsettling.  This ominous ambiguity is a trait shared by some of the other, more supernaturally inflected, stories such as "My Father's Mask" and "Voluntary Committal."  I get deeply frustrated and annoyed with open-ended films, but, oddly, this lack of resolution and resistance of concrete explanation is one thing that I liked most about these stories.

There is an allusiveness in some of Hill's stories which appealed to the nerd in me.  Although it would not exactly be a spoiler to reveal the setting for "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead," or to mention the back story for "Abraham's Boys," as Hill himself makes these details explicit early in the story, I am refraining from doing so because I think other readers should be able to experience the moment of recognition that I felt.  Part of the pleasure of "Abraham's Boys" was the surprise of the early revelation, whereas part of the pleasure of "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead" is for the cinema or horror fan to recognise the setting ahead of Joe Hill's reveal.  As another example, "Last Breath," a story that I enjoyed a lot, has a "Tales of the Unexpected" leaning - made more noticeable by a Roald Dahl name check - and, on a tangent, made me think back to a British horror film I once saw called "The Asphyx" about trying to capture the spirit of death.  I am by no means implying that Joe Hill's writing is derivative, but more that it shows his awareness of his predecessors, the traditions of horror/supernatural writing and cinema, and his willingness to play with and use this knowledge. 

The majority of these stories do have elements of horror writing and the supernatural.  However, one of the strengths of Hill's writing is that his stories are grounded in reality and the imperatives of human emotion.  The title story, as an example, is ultimately more poignant than frightening.  To draw a reference from screen horror, Hill's stories are less the blatant gore of something like "Saw," and more the atmospheric chills of Hammer, or the suggestive strangeness of "The Twilight Zone."  Hill can manage both the 100 metre brevity needed for the short story, as well as the marathon feat of stamina of a novel, and I am looking forward to his next piece of writing.


  1. My personal favorite in the collection is "Pop Art," which is just awesome. But I liked the entire book; not a bad story in the entire bunch.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Bryant. I also enjoyed "Pop Art." It is a genuinely unusual story, and very poignant and touching.