20th Century Ghosts – Joe Hill

51pbfcgwtplTitle – 20th Century Ghosts

Author – Joe Hill

Published – 2005

Genre – Horror

This is is a short story collection and is the first of Joe Hill’s work that I’ve read, despite having seen him on his book tour for The Fireman.

One of the real highlights of the collection is the variety of the stories and the distinctiveness of the different voices. The stories make an interesting  combination,  some like ‘Best New Horror’ are a very conventional approach to horror where others have more of a fantasy feel to them. Despite this (or perhaps because of this) many of the stories have a more poignant and touching aspect to them, and there seems to be a thread running through a number of stories featuring children and childhood.

I particularly enjoyed ‘Pop Art’ which was both funny and moving. ‘Art’ is Arthur Ross, an inflatable Jewish boy. The narrator has a difficult home life with an unpleasant father and Art’s family provides a stark contrast, but Art is inflatable. The author has thought through the disadvantages of being inflatable, for example unable to speak Art has to write his thoughts on a pad, but of course this must be in crayon as a sharpened pencil could be deadly… The story is about the relationship between the two boys but inevitably being inflatable is Art’s defining characteristic.

The last story in the collection, ‘Voluntary Committal’ is a chilling horror without any gore or shocks, but nonetheless gripping and was probably the highlight for me. Was this the author saving the best until last? The story is narrated by Nolan but is about his younger brother Morris, a little boy diagnosed with some mental health problems. But that’s not what makes Morris different. Morris likes to construct things, starting with paper cups he moves on to cardboard boxes, the designs becoming ever more elaborate and complex, but the structures have a sinister side.

On the other hand there were some stories that I just didn’t get. I’m not a reader that likes to be confused  – I like clear resolution and explanation, a direct take on the genre, so more ambiguous stories like ‘My Father’s Mask’ just left me puzzled with more questions than answers.

Collections of short stories make a welcome break from novels and although they don’t make for the same sort of escapism there’s a lot to be said for being able to distill a piece of prose into the length of a train journey. This collection was a bit of a mixed bag for me though.

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