Book Review: 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

Book Review: 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

20th Century Ghosts is not the first short story collection I’ve read by Hill, but it’s the first one he released. As a whole, I think it might be a touch stronger than Full Throttle, a more recent short story collection of his I read in 2019. However, I also found the individual stories largely less memorable. It was more even across the board, but that meant that there were fewer that stood out to me. That being said, I really enjoyed my time with this collection, and there wasn’t a single story that I legitimately hated. In a collection of 15 stories, I’d say that’s a pretty fantastic achievement. Below are micro-reviews of each story.

Best New Horror – 4.5 stars
An editor falls in love with a very dark story by an even more mysterious author, and becomes obsessed with finding him. I love how the ending of the story mirrored in tone and inevitability the story that our main character was so infatuated with. This was a dark one, that would make a great movie.

20th Century Ghost – 3 stars
A theater is haunted, but the ghost in question just wants to talk about movies. I found it perfectly maudlin. The melancholy air makes the entire story. I love the idea that those who are literally haunted by their pasts came together not to exorcize it, but to honor it. The pacing was a tad off, and the telling itself was uneven and occasionally difficult to follow, but I really liked the feel.

Pop Art – 3.5 stars
A boy’s childhood best friend is inflatable. No, really. This was such a weird concept that it took my brain a few pages to come to terms with Art not being imaginary. But I became very taken by the friendship at the story’s core, as well as seeing Art try to navigate life in a world that is so potentially deadly for him. It ended up being very sad, but lovely.

You will Hear the Locust Sing – 2 stars
It’s The Metamorphosis, but with a willing participant. Love how evocative of Kafka this is from the first line. The main character’s excitement over the transformation was uncomfortable. I can’t say I enjoyed this one. It was definitely horror, but not the kind I prefer. But it was like a train wreck; I couldn’t look away.

Abraham’s Boys – 3 stars
This is a loose Dracula sequel, following Abraham Van Helsing’s sons, Max and Rudy. It demonstrates that even those viewed as heroes often harbor dark secrets, and can be villains behind closed doors. Honestly, it was a bit traumatic. I actually liked the undercurrent of the story, an older brother trying to protect the younger from their abusive father, than I did the vampire hunting angle. Because the darkest monsters are always fully human.

Better Than Home – 3.5 stars
Just a boy and his dad bonding over baseball, in spite of the defects plaguing them both. This was another story that made me sad, even though it wasn’t necessarily a sad story. I just wanted to give Homer and his dad both a big hug and a safe space to be who they are and love the games they love. There wasn’t much plot here, but it didn’t need one.

The Black Phone – 4 stars
The basis for the recent movie of the same name. A boy is kidnapped and locked in a prison cell of a basement, but a boxy black phone is weirdly hanging on the wall. I ended up liking this one so much more than I expected. The ending was fabulous, and I loved the poetry of it. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a truly excellent little horror story.

In the Rundown – 3.5 stars
An unlikeable man finds himself in a terrifying situation that could never have been foreseen. I actually think this is one of the most disturbing stories in the collection, purely because nothing supernatural occurs and the events are technically plausible. I both love and hate how open-ended and open to interpretation it is. Wyatt was an interesting character, but the situation in which he found himself was really the star of the show here.

The Cape – 2.5 stars
A kid teases his older brother for no longer wanting to be a superhero, and an accident occurs. Weird events surrounding that accident set the tone for the rest of our main character’s life. I found the description of his brother not wanting to be a hero anymore, and wishing people would forget he ever had, a sad thought. Not just putting away childish things, but being embarrassed you were ever a child to begin with. But as they grew up, the main character’s obsession with the past became more and more ominous. The ending was unexpectedly dark.

Last Breath – 4.5 stars
This story revolves around a museum full of seemingly empty jars, and the doctor who fills them with their invisible treasures. The entire concept here, of capturing the silence of someone’s last breath in a jar as a way to immortalize them, is absolutely fascinating. The ending was just the right touch of macabre. While fairly short for the collection, it’s one of my favorites.

Dead Wood – 5 stars
My favorite story in the collection, and it’s by far the shortest. The thought of ghostly trees appeals to me deeply. I loved this one so much. It was only 2 pages long, but those 2 pages were packed with depth and loveliness and that melancholy that I love so much in very specific horror. How it came back around to human relationships in the end, and the way Hill made these phantom trees a metaphor, was simply beautiful.

The Widow’s Breakfast – 3.5 stars
Very evocative of Steinbeck. We follow a hobo during the Depression, after he had just lost his traveling buddy. We see grief and loss from multiple angles as he meets the titular widow and her daughters. I found the ending weirdly fascinating, and the social commentary throughout was quietly profound. I enjoyed it so much more than I anticipated when I started.

Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead – 4 stars
I don’t have a good description for this one that wouldn’t kill part of the experience. But I will say that I love how jarring that opening is, how it leaves you completely befuddled until the end of the second paragraph. At least, it did me. The story was such a weird, utterly engaging slice-of-life. I was deeply invested in the undercurrent of lost romance, and I loved the ending. That last line was perfect!

My Father’s Mask – 2 stars
This one was very, very weird. A boy’s parents bring him to a family cabin filled with masks, and things just get stranger from there. I think I followed it for the most part, but I can’t say I really enjoyed it. I still found it interesting, though. It was a little like an acid-trip to Wonderland.

Voluntary Committal – 4.5 stars
The longest, and one of the most interesting, stories in the collection. Our main character describes losing his best friend and his brother, though the losses were separated by years. His brother, Morris, was likely on the autistic spectrum and was a creative savant, building incredible things out of materials others would throw away. I was utterly fascinated by Morris’s creations, and by him as a character. I love how you could tell he deeply loved his brother, he just had a different way of showing it. I could have read a full novel version of this story, but the length felt right.

Again, this was a solid collection, and it’s one I can see myself revisiting. Hill is just as gifted in the art of short form story-telling as his father, and I’m very glad to have read 20th Century Ghosts. It was a perfect October read.

You can purchase this book from: Blackwell’s | (Support independent bookstores!)Amazon US | Amazon UK | Audible | (Another way to support independent bookstores!) | Book Depository (Free shipping worldwide!)

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