110 of 117 people found the following review helpful
on November 8, 2007
Reading is a collaborative event. When the collaboration is good, the story resonates inside, touching on some emotion or history that the reader brings to the table. The very best stories are fresh and specific, though, so simply tapping into pop culture or tired archetypes won't work as an authorial technique. The story has to touch something deeper. It has to be true.
In bypassing pop clichés, the ending of a truly great story should be a surprise--not because of a trick, but because in telling the truth, the clichés get left behind.
I was three stories deep in Joe Hill's "20th Century Ghosts" before I decided that I was reading the freshest, most surprising, truest speculative fiction I'd read in decades. Each piece in this book is a gem. "Best New Horror" is a formulaic tale about an editor who's tired of formula stories. The last paragraph of the tale takes an exhilarating turn that struck me as poetic--completely reframing the story. "Pop Art" is the most unusual, touching piece of fiction I can remember. The title is a pun, and the story is absurd. How could it leave me in tears? "Better than Home" is an odd father-son love story. What is a story about baseball, uncontrollable saliva, dead bodies under a covered bridge and the joys of throwing peanut shells on the steps doing in a collection of horror tales? Fitting in quite nicely. Every tale here belongs.
Critics often say, "I couldn't put the book down." I put 20th Century Ghosts down a half-dozen times, asking myself, "How could this guy be so damned good?" Do yourself a huge favor. Buy 20th Century Ghosts and "begin collaborating" with this most talented author.
50 of 53 people found the following review helpful
on October 16, 2007
Joe Hill has received many, many awards. This book was originally published in Britain by PS Publishing in 2005, and it won the British Fantasy Award, The International Horror Guild Award, and the Bram Stoker Award for best collection. He is also a 2006 World Fantasy Award winner, for his novella Voluntary Committal, which appears in the same book. He is the author of Heart Shaped Box. Joe, 35, is the son of authors Stephen King and Tabitha King.
Twentieth Century Ghosts contains 15 of the most severely bizarre and original stories ever conceived. Hill has been influenced by Malamud and Kafka. These tales are the stuff of Twilight Zone, seriously creepy and macabre, full of spectral and often perverse violence. Any parent other than Stephen King might be very concerned.
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. Or maybe it was "Voluntary Committal," where seriously schizophrenic Morris Lerner, builder of elaborate basement cardboard box mazes, helps out his older brother by getting rid of a nasty pal.
"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.
NOTE: Many of the stories feature threatened children. If this sort of thing bothers you, stay away.
Armchair Interviews says: Read this one with the lights on.
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on May 18, 2008
So the cat's out of the bag now that Joe Hill is one of Stephen King's sons. Well, no such thing as nepotism here, because this is an absolutely beautiful book--definitely on my list of favorites.
Hill wears his influences and inspirations on his sleeve. "You Will Hear the Locust Sing" is like Kafka's The Metamorphosis set during a 1950's giant bug movie. "Abraham's Boys" is his take on the Van Helsing character from Dracula. "The Cape" is both a realistic character study and a superhero origin story. "20th Century Ghost" is a nostalgic homage to both film history, in general, and Steven Spielberg, in particular.
Yet, none of the stories ever feel derivative or lazy, because Hill always manages to add some new or unexpected twist. Many of the stories are disturbing, some are even shocking, but they also manage to be humorous, warm, and tender. There's authentic emotional depth in these tales. I can't manage to make it through "Pop Art," the absolute masterpiece of the collection, without crying every single time.
The title 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? Is it a gift (or a curse) from our families? Do we decide ourselves who we are? Do we embrace our secret self (You Will Hear the Locust Sing, The Cape), do we run from it (Best New Horror), do we hide from it (Voluntary Committal)? Are we predetermined to become our parents (My Father's Mask)?
Hill displays incredible talent in this book. I can't wait to see what he produces in the future. In the meantime, I highly recommend this one.
28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
Before "The Heart-Shaped Box" hit the bestseller charts, Joe Hill released this book as a limited edition short story collection. It won numerous awards in 2005--Bram Stoker Award for Best Fiction Collection, British Fantasy Award for Best Collection, and the International Horror Guild Award for Best Collection--all before Hill was "outed" as the second son of novelists Stephen and Tabitha King.
The 14 stories included outshine his debut novel, featuring a wide variety of protagonists and situations outside of the norm in horror. In fact, not every story has supernatural elements--several stories here originally appeared in "literary" journals. "Abraham's Boys" is a post-modern twist on Van Helsing, while Hill updates Kafka with "You Will Hear the Locust Sing." The most disturbing stories, however, have no blood and gore, such as mind-freak "My Father's Mask." The novella that concludes this collection, "Voluntary Committal," is one of the most haunting novellas ever written. This edition also contains the short story "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead," which was not previously published in the UK edition.
23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 2007
If you are expecting a collection of ghost stories, please reset your expectations, or you will be disappointed. There are a couple of ghost stories, some 1950's style horror stories, some modern horror, some supernatural and some straight fiction. I picked this book up after reading Joe Hill's "Heart Shaped Coffin". I was impressed with the straight-forward writing style used in that book, and I wanted to see some of his earlier work. I wasn't disappointed.
The short story titled "20th Century Ghost" is a very good ghost story whereas "Best New Horror" was a very good modern horror story. These two stories were my favorites with "Voluntary Commitment", "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead", "The Black Phone", and "The Widow's Breakfast" not far behind. If you are looking for an enjoyable collection of short stories with a mix of topics, try this book.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on May 8, 2009
Overall - I normally do expect improvement from someone's first to second book. The stories here are an interesting mix of horror, the super-natural and some that are neither of these. I enjoyed most of the stories in the collection but there were some that were a little weird for my tastes. Of course, some stories are better than others but this is true of almost every collection of short stories that I have read. I didn't like this as well as Heart-Shaped Box, however, since this is his first work, that is to be expected.
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 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.
Pop Art - I'm not too sure about this entry into the collection. It's kind of like one of those Twilight Zone episodes that was WAY outside of the box and didn't really feel like the rest of the episodes. This story is about an inflatable boy who is actually alive and living as close to a normal life as someone who's inflatable can. It's a really weird concept and I can't exactly say that I found it to be all that enjoyable. It has the potential to grow on me though upon subsequent readings.
You Will Hear the Locust Sing - Back to something more along the horror vein. When a young man wakes in the morning and realizes that he has mutated into an insect, all hell breaks loose. This was an interesting story and moved along at a fairly brisk pace. After the last story, I feel like we're on the right track again.
Abraham's Boys - This story catches the reader up with Abraham Van Helsing and his two sons. Now living in America, Van Helsing is a hard task master trying to teach his sons to fear and respect the creatures of the night. I liked this story and thought that raised some interesting questions about Van Helsing. I especially liked the ending.
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.
The Black Phone - Ah, back to a good scary one! A young boy is abducted and kept in a basement with a strange black phone on the wall. The phone is obviously disconnected and of no use in his efforts to escape...and then it rings! I really enjoyed this one, it has a nice build up of tension and a very satisfying conclusion.
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. Other than that (and it's kind of a big other than that!) it was a pretty good story.
The Cape - Two young boys discover the magical powers of a super-hero cape. When they are grown, the cape makes another appearance and the results are more sinister. I really found this one to be fairly fun and enjoyable.
Last Breath - This is a story about a unique museum - on that displays a collection of people's last dying breaths - and the experiences of a family that visits it. This one wasn't really scary, but extremely creepy! One of my favorites in the collection.
Dead-Wood - This is a two page discussion on whether trees can also have ghosts. Kind of interesting, but kind of weird too.
The 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.
Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead - Two former lovers are reunited while cast as zombies in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. This is a fairly entertaining story with no real horror in it except for the setting. The characters are compelling and likeable.
My Father's Mask - Back to a fairly strange one. 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. Not a bad story, but not one of my favorites either.
Voluntary Committal - This is a story about a couple of brothers, one of whom is mentally handicapped. He has a talent for building things, first structures out of paper cups and dominos and later sprawling, magical forts out of cardboard boxes. This was a very interesting and engaging coming of age story that focuses on the bond between two very different brothers. I really enjoyed it and it was one of my favorites in the book.
Afterward - Be sure to read the afterward, Mr. Hill has included a bonus story in here!
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 2009
20th Century Ghosts reminds me of Bradbury's Illustrated Man; while each is considered a genre book, both are anthologies of stories both within and beyond their purported genres. The majority of stories in 20th Century Ghosts are horror stories, but some are not.
Oddly enough, I thought Hill was at his best when telling stories that weren't horror stories. "Better Than Home", which dealt with the relationship between father and son, was the best story in the collection, I think. "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead" was a great story about regrets and the paths our lives take, and "The Widow's Breakfast" captured an intimate snapshot of life in the Great Depression.
Hill's a fast read, and his prose seems easily wrought--the writing is smooth and lyrical without being pretentious or turgid. The introduction calls it "subtle;" I didn't find too much about the in-genre stories subtle, but the prose itself is very well constructed.
Now for the criticisms: Hill has a hard time writing a decent ending. Many of the horror stories do not resolve; they simply stop. As a reader, I don't require that everything be explained in detail at the end of a story; I'm willing to have something left to my imagination. But, when story after story leads up to a "Lady or the Tiger" ending, the practice starts to look less like a plot device and more like a literary weakness. The most disappointing story, "My Father's Mask", failed in my opinion because I found the ending virtually meaningless, even after a few re-readings.
Joe Hill also has a thing for horrible things happening to kids. Nearly every story, and every one of the horror stories, involves children in some way. Of course, virtually everyone is repulsed by harm coming to children. Its use, or really overuse, in Hill's stories either reveals a fascination with harm to kids, which is disgusting, or the need to use our innate revulsion just to ramp up the unease, which is little more than a tawdry parlor trick. Either way, it appeared to me that while the stories widely ranged, the subject matter remained pretty one-dimensional.
Nevertheless, there are some good horror stories in here. "20th Century Ghosts" and "Abraham's Boys" were rock solid, in my opinion. "The Black Phone", while having the most disturbing subject matter, had the best formed ending of any of the genre stories.
Hill has outstanding pacing and interesting story ideas, but nothing in 20th Century Ghosts rivals the tension of King's "Children of the Corn" or the tender strangeness of William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily." But, it's worth your time, and makes you look forward to future works and Hill's development as a writer.
15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on December 31, 2007
It is often stated that a creation can be reviewed only after a certain distance has been created between the reviewer and the creation in question. But if that is going to be the "central dogma", then nobody can review this book. Every story in this book thrills you, shivers you, stunns you, but above all, touches you, always. After reading hundreds of literally "horrifying" horror stories, these stories made me realise how inadequate the others had been. Mr. Hill, in your journey towards becoming a mountain, would you keep us stunned ever after in this fashion? Please do! And constant reader, don't even think of skipping this book, it might the best thing you have read in decades.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 10, 2008
20TH CENTURY GHOSTS BY JOE HILL: The first time you pick up the hardcover copy of 20th Century Ghosts, you know you're in for a treat. The book is cloth-bound in darkest black, sans dust jacket, with a sticker on the front listing the title and author, along with a haunting black and white photograph. As one opens the cover, one is greeted by a dried blood-red inlay, followed by the white pages of writing. It is almost as if one is opening a black and bloody wound to read what Joe Hill has to offer.
20th Century Ghosts is a short story collection of modern horror, revealing what else has been going on in the mind of the author who brought us the bestselling Heart-Shaped Box. Originally released in hardcover two years ago in England, Joe Hill fans will be happy to have this beautiful hardcover edition available at the more affordable price than the out-of-print edition only available on the likes of eBay.
With a quick introduction from Christopher Golden, author of The Myth Hunters and Strangewood, the collection kicks of with a chilling story titled "Best New Horror." It is about an editor of the annual Best New Horror collection who is sent a fresh and disturbing story for the next edition, featuring a level of the macabre and disgust that he hasn't seen in a long time. The editor seeks out the author and finds himself in his very own horrific story on a level with that of the one that so entranced him. The title story, "20th Century Ghost," is a classic modern-day ghost story about an old movie theater that is being haunted by a young girl who loved to watch movies until she died suddenly one day at the theater. Now she returns every once in a while to engage a movie viewer in chilling conversation.
From there Hill takes the reader on a journey into different kinds of horror. A man in a Kafkaesque world awakes as a giant cockroach. A young boy is kidnapped by a terrifying hulk of a man who admits he won't hurt him, but simply wants to watch him. A short and enchanting tale about the ghosts of trees. The fascinating story about a boy who can fly whenever he wears his childhood cape. Not all stories are of the horror variety, but more the mundane and yet still able to move the reader. "Pop Art" is the incredible and yet strangely enchanting story about a world where some people are "inflatable," composed of little more tan plastic and air and must be careful not to get caught on anything sharp, or they will deflate and die. It is a moving story about a boy and his relationship with one of these inflatable people. A considerable number of the stories in 20th Century Ghosts involve children, specifically young boys. Perhaps Hill is turning to his own childhood imagination, or maybe he feels that childhood is a time when the imagination is most creative and easily convinced, even if the demons and monsters that are imagined are actually real.
While Heart-Shaped Box was not as great a book as I'd hoped, 20th Century Ghosts has convinced me that Joe Hill is an entertaining and talented new horror writer, who is still working somewhat in the style of his father's, Stephen King, but as time passes and more stories and books are written and published, he will no doubt become one of the most popular and most interesting of today's horror writers. I look forward to reading his next work.
For more reviews, please to go [...]
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on September 25, 2013
I've not read most of this book yet, although the two stories I've read are excellent, but I did want to give you a heads up about getting around a problem in the Kindle set-up of the book. If you start from the beginning you'll find two stories and then the book will seem to end. You have to use the Go To tool to get to location 10 in order to find the actual complete table of contents for the book.