20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

I knew it wouldn’t be long before I broke my New Year’s reading resolution . My aim for this year was to stop resorting to tried and tested favourite authors, and to branch out into new and crucially better books – not relying on the same old horror/thriller fall-backs time after time!

That resolution lasted, oh about as long as it took me to stumble across Joe Hill’s Twentieth Century Ghosts in Waterstones. In most respects, this book meets most of those same-old-same-old hallmarks – short horror stories by one of my newest favourite authors. But, well… I bloody love short horror stories, okay? And Joe Hill wrote my absolute favourite book of 2017, The Fireman. So really, the moment the paperback leapt off the shelf and into my arms, it was a done deal.

And I’m very glad it was, because there are some real gems in here.

“Best New Horror” gets the collection off to a flying start. Almost a story-within-a-story (about a man who collects stories!) it contains some truly gruesome imagery, and builds its way to a chilling crescendo.

“20th Century Ghost”, the titular offering, didn’t work as well for me. The tale of a ghost spending eternity in a cinema made for an interesting premise, but proved among the more forgettable in the bunch.

“Pop Art” is a bizarre little offering about a balloon boy, bullying and high school life. Not truly horror, but it showcases an interesting corner of Hill’s imagination.

“You Will Hear The Locust Sing” combines body horror and high school massacre, two topics that might not be natural bedfellows, but are made to work well here.

“Abraham’s Boys” was a bit of a low note – a follow-on from Dracula that wraps paranoia, vampire hunting and domestic abuse into an uncomfortable package.

“Better Than Home” didn’t leave much of an impression either. The story of a relationship between a famous father and his son with autism contains some tender moments, but ends on a puzzlingly vague note.

“The Black Phone” is one of the gems of the collection. It’s the tale of a boy’s abduction and his struggle for survival, with aid from supernatural sources – very reminiscent of elements Hill’s NOS4R2, Horns and Heart-Shaped Box.

“In The Rundown” was also amongst the best in the collection. A disenfranchised youth has the worst day of his life – just when I thought my stomach couldn’t plunge any further, it did.

“The Cape” is another fab addition, and one that could easily have become a novella, or even a novel. Most children at some point or another fantasize that they can fly. This is the story of one boy who actually could.

“Last Breath” is a morbid little short about a doctor who collects the titular last breaths of the dying. There’s an atmosphere of dread here that’s very well depicted.

“Dead-Wood” is just too short to leave a real impression – about how nature can leave behind ghosts just as well as people.

“The Widow’s Breakfast” wasn’t one of my favourites. Following a railroad transient and a bit of human kindness, the tone is bittersweet.

“Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead” is a fun take on a zombie story. I’d read this one before, in The Living Dead collection edited by John Joseph Adams – but somehow over time I’d come to believe it was actually written by Stephen King. Oops.

“My Father’s Mask” is hands-down the creepiest inclusion in this collection. It has an other-worldly atmosphere, pervaded by a growing sense of dread which reaches a crushing crescendo. Fantastic.

“Voluntary Committal” is the longest story in 20th Century Ghosts, at full novella length. I loved the idea at the centre of it – a boy who builds box forts so complex that if you enter, you risk never being seen again. I could have easily read more and more of this story.

[Read from 25-30 January 2017]

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