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.