BOOK: 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill (2007)

A few years ago, I read Joe Hill’s first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, and wasn’t terribly impressed (it’s in the list of book reviews from April 2007, if you’re interested (scroll down), and I filed it under “Utter Crap”).    But a month or so ago, my husband picked up this book of short stories and got really engrossed in it, so when he was done, I picked it up myself and have been working my way through it over the last couple of weeks.

Some of the stories in this collection are as bad as the novel was — I go back again to the words “clichéd, boring, and trite.”  But there were a few that were absolutely wonderful, including one, “Pop Art,” that I’ve now read twice and loved even more the second time around.

“Pop Art” is about a little boy who befriends another little boy who just so happens to be a living, feeling blow-up doll named Art.  The two become best buds and the story deals a lot with Art’s feelings of fragility and “otherness,” as well as his poignant courage and strength.  It’s a simple, cleanly-written coming-of-age story with a bizarre and fascinating twist, and the ending actually made me tear up both times.  That’s saying a LOT, believe you me, because I don’t often cry at books.

A few of the other stories in 20th Century Ghosts were just as strange and just as mesmerizing, and, overall, the collection impressed me enough to reverse my position on Hill (who’s Stephen King’s son, by the way) as an author and start looking forward to reading whatever it is he puts out next.

The thing I noticed the most as I read this collection, though, which is technically described as a book of horror stories, is that it’s when Hill is NOT writing horror that he starts to shine.  The first story in the book is the only truly “horrifying” of the scary ones, and that’s only because it’s truly, authentically disturbing.  But even it has an ending that struck me as a bit on the silly side, and that’s the direction Hill always seems to head whenever he’s trying to put on a fright.  (Something he learned from his father, I would say — I’m not much of a King fan, especially over the last decade or so.)

Here’s hoping Hill breaks from the family tradition for his next novel or collection and sticks to what he seems to do best:  peeking deep inside his characters and finding out what motivates and moves them, and staying far, far away from monsters, ghosts, and serial killers.  You’ve got nothing new to add in that category, Joe, I’m sorry to say.  But when it comes to making me feel things, you got me sitting up every now and then.  Run with that.  Trust me on this.


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4 Responses to “BOOK: 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill (2007)”

  1. Rochelle Says:

    I buy two kinds of books. #1 – Anything about vampires and #2 – Anything by Stephen King. I am, in fact, currently rereading my King collection alphabetically. I think my favorite thing about reading King is that afterwards it makes me think I can write too. The fact that I am actually an accountant notwithstanding. Something else I really like is how the characters feel like real people. I’ll also agree that I generally like the earlier books better, especially the Shining, which also may be the only SK movie I like at all. It is also the first SK book I remember reading back in 10th grade, sometimes by nightlight. Due to my general cynicism I guess, I haven’t actually been scared by a horror novel since It, which I read in college. That may just have been aftershocks of Tim Curry in the miniseries. I’ve been on the fence about trying out Joe Hill. I don’t want to compare him unfairly to my favorite author, too harshly or too leniently. I except sooner or later I will give him a try.

  2. Liz Says:

    What you say about Joe Hill is something I’ve noticed about Stephen King, too. He oftentimes does better when he’s not trying to be horrifying! I was VERY scared by “The Shining,” and I LOVED “The Stand.” I’ve enjoyed many of his books, although I haven’t been as scared by them – but he sometimes does do better when he’s not writing horror – like “The Shawshank Redemption” or “The Green Mile.” Maybe it’s a family trait!

  3. briantoohey Says:

    Unfortunately, Hill got even worse going from Heart Shaped Box to Horns. My problem is this: despite the fact that he writes a lot like his father, King is often writing about sympathetic people who are, at heart, heroes. Often in their own blue collar, redneck, down-home way; but still, heroes. Sometimes that means King’s stories end up extremely heavy-handed or ham-handed or both, not to mention cliched. But other times when he connects, they’re inspiring and feature characters you can identify with and care about. Hill seems to be writing about characters who are generally deplorable, and morally bankrupt, or close to it. I not only found it difficult to like most of the characters in both Box and Horns, but I was morally repulsed by them to the point that I didn’t care much about any of them, and seeing the ways they didn’t care much about each other and constantly took each other for granted or violated each other just made me feel nihilistic about humanity after finishing the books. Whereas King’s books, even though they’re often categorized as horror, are usually uplifting and about the resilience of the human spirit and hope. You know, I love flawed characters, because I myself feel pretty flawed and I like to see those characters redeemed. But there’s a difference between a character fighting to redeem themselves from a bad judgement they’ve made, and a character that is just generally morally reprehensible.

    20th Century Ghosts seems to be the best that Hill has produced, perhaps because he didn’t tie himself to a longer reaching story and was able to allow his creativity to run free into some pretty weird places that would have run out the string on a conventional narrative. And for some reason, it also featured a mixture of more sympathetic characters, but that’s besides the point. I don’t think King has that same problem, but King seems to run into problems with his really long books and ultimately become a file clerk to the plot and characters instead of a writer, and by the end he’s just cleaning house and sweeping floor and taking inventory and the plot gets extremely predictable and conventional so that he can rein it all back in. I think King can be a great writer at times, particularly when he’s concentrating on a smaller focus and more personalized behavior. There’s some really strong writing in something like Bag of Bones. As for the epic, like The Stand, King starts out fantastically and paints a really awe-inspiring canvas. Then as he gets personal with the different elements, the story only becomes more fascinating. But once he starts trying to pull it altogether around the two-thirds point, it’s like he’s playing traffic cop to chess pieces that are just walking through the motions to a pre-ordained finish, and there’s no longer very much natural, organic, surprising, or personal happening.

  4. megwood Says:

    Excellent points, Brian. I am starting to feel the same way about Lorrie Moore, as well — that she’s an amazing short story writer, but a really, really bad novelist. I think some writers need the time and space constraints in order to stay sharp. Hill seems to be one of those.

    I also agree about the sympathetic nature of King’s characters vs. Hill’s — really good point and one I hadn’t thought about before. So true.

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