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.
[SHORT STORIES / FICTION / HORROR]