Reviewed by Elizabeth Hand
Sunday, October 28, 2007
20th CENTURY GHOSTS
By Joe Hill
Morrow. 316 pp. $24.95
20th Century Ghosts, the melancholy and very fine story collection by Joe Hill, comes with an impeccable literary pedigree and a great backstory. Hill was born Joseph Hillstrom King, son of the writers Tabitha and Stephen King, and developed his chops the old-fashioned way, publishing work in literary magazines and anthologies here and in England. When he began shopping his first collection around, it was turned down in the United States and finally appeared in 2005 from a small British press. That edition garnered numerous awards, including the William Crawford Award for best first fantasy book, and won its author a contract at Morrow, which earlier this year published his bestselling horror novel, Heart-Shaped Box. Now Americans finally get a chance to see what all the noise was about: This new edition of 20th Century Ghosts includes a previously unpublished story, and the collection should establish its author as a major player in 21st-century fantastic fiction.
Hill's subject matter is steeped in the pop culture and tabloid detritus of the last 50 years: serial killers, abducted children, families living on the fault lines between divorce and poverty, horror movies and supernatural fiction. Yet his real focus is an almost obsessively nuanced exploration of the nature of American manhood. The presiding spirits of 20th Century Ghosts are lost boys and damaged men, running for their lives across a blighted, often surreal modern landscape.
"Best New Horror" is a gleefully mordant shout-out to Hill's roots in genre fiction, evoking the close-knit, somewhat claustrophobic world of horror conventions and publishing in the tale of an editor whose pursuit of a reclusive writer reaches a disturbing yet exhilarating conclusion. The lovely title story, set in a haunted movie theater, is sweeter and Capra-esque in its effects. "You Will Hear the Locust Sing" recasts Kafka's Metamorphosis as a lurid A-Bomb monster flick -- think "Attack of the Crab Monsters" with a giant mutant cockroach (a cannibal, no less). "Abraham's Boys" is an overwrought deconstruction of the "Van Helsing" branch of the Dracula mythos; "The Black Phone" provides a supernatural take on what has become an over familiar trope: the serial child killer.
Hill's best stories veer away from the well-trodden creep shows and back alleys of genre writing into more dangerous territory: suburban basements, ball fields and schoolyards. These are where his protagonists, all male, vie with brothers, fathers, friends (but only occasionally wives or lovers) to stake some small claim to a deceptively mundane prize, what the narrator of the wrenching "Voluntary Committal" calls "a strong sense of self." "Eddie knew who he was. He accepted himself. His failings had ceased to trouble him. Every word he spoke was a thoughtless, pure expression of his true personality. Whereas I had no clear picture of myself, and was always looking to others, watching them intently, both hoping and fearing that I would catch some clear sign of who they saw when they looked at me."
In this and the collection's other standouts, "Pop Art," "Better Than Home" and "The Widow's Breakfast," Hill captures the heartbreaking longing for connection between men whose intelligence and decency aren't always enough to save them from the dark. *
Elizabeth Hand's most recent novel is "Generation Loss."