April 2006

Colleen Mondor


20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

My literary relationship with Joe Hill began when I discovered his chapbook, Voluntary Committal at Subterranean Press. As a longtime Alice in Wonderland fan I’ve always wondered what might have happened if that trip went wrong. Hill’s chapbook took the idea of Alice never coming back and pretty much scared the crap out of me. It surprised me on every level, with its characters, plot, scene descriptions, everything. It was the best kind of reading experience, where you know that guy behind the typewriter has loved writing every word you are reading and has crafted a word-filled trip to a place you never could have dreamed of on your own; you never could have even imagined.

Voluntary Committal made me think of Ray Bradbury, of all those creepy short stories that have caused me to put October Country down with a shake more than once. His chapbook was Caitlin Keirnan writing about New Orleans (or puddles, or a house on a hill) or Stephen King remembering those afternoons in Maine, those moments when a clown could live in a storm drain. Voluntary Committal was that kind of delicious well written creepy that is so easy to read and so hard to find. Pretty quickly I became a huge fan, and when I found out that PS Publishing was releasing an entire collection by Joe Hill (which includes Voluntary Committal), I was beyond excited. 20th Century Ghosts has proven to be everything I wanted and more.

There is no luring you in with Hill, no gentle easy story to make you feel comfortable. In fact, he throws a wicked story of life after death into the Acknowledgements at the very beginning. It is as if he can not wait to tell stories; like he has so many that he must slip them past the editors at every chance he gets. “Scheherazade’s Typewriter” is a delight to find before we even reach the official first page and its story of death and writing sets us up for what follows.

I have favorites in this collection, but in retrospect what fascinated me about the stories is that certain ones appealed to certain sensibilities. For its glorious send-up of a thousand horror clichés, “Best New Horror” can not be beat. I also loved the way it climbed into the head of an editor, and exposed so many aspects of writing and publishing. “20th Century Ghost” is that haunting story that is all too often done wrong; the kind where it’s not about being scared at all, but about being close to the rich and strange and unexplained worlds that surround us everyday. It’s also a love letter to another time and place, to childhood in general. I was learning at this point that Hill has a gift for perfect endings. “You Will Hear the Locust Sing” is twenty-first century Kafka; it’s what critics really mean when they say a writer has given a classic a “modern twist.” It’s also, oddly, about being a kid, but then again so is “Pop Art” and “Abraham’s Boys” and even “The Black Phone.” All of them show that particular trusting vulnerability that children have, and a few also expose the violence that lives beneath the surface of adolescence, the fist always ready to spring. (“Locust” in particular nails this truth perfectly.)

There are stories in Ghost that are not the slightest bit frightening though, that are instead lovely literary examples of friendship such as in “Pop Art,” or fathers and sons such as “Better Than Home.” And then there are those that seem to be about one thing and then suddenly, in the final pages, become something much different; much worse. “My Father’s Mask” blew my mind with its final moments, and “The Cape” seemed almost delightful for a little while -- but just for a little while.

There is no overriding theme to these stories, no common location or even common time period. They are just glimpses, looks into one life after another that Hill finds intriguing, that he wants to explore. They are possibilities, potential outcomes, things that might happen. That man over there, the one who seems so harmless, well, what if he is not? What if he is really your deepest darkest nightmare and you won’t figure that out until it is too late? What will you do then? What will happen? And your father, the one who always seemed a little crazy, but still, was someone you knew; someone you could handle. Well, what if he turns a mental corner and gets serious about this crazy business one night? What will you do to break free from that life? How far will you go to get out of there?

What will you do if all turns out to be true, if all those things that seemed impossible are really true? What if that girl in the movie theater is really a ghost? What if, asks Joe Hill, what if, what if, what if?

I honestly do not know why Joe Hill isn’t wildly popular. He is such a great writer; it’s clear to me that he deserves to be someone that every fan of the short story in particular ought to be reading. (Of course I also feel the same way about Caitlin Kiernan, another woefully underappreciated master of the form.) According to his web site, Hill has a novel coming out next year from William Morrow, Heart-Shaped Box. I hope it’s a breakthrough moment for him, but regardless I’m certain I will be buying a copy. Hill is just too gifted a writer for me to pass up. He takes chances with his stories and I admire that; I admire the hell out of this guy and everything he does with the written word.   

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
PS Publishing
ISBN 1904619469
341 pages