Published by Harper Collins on February 3, 2009
Genres: Fiction, Ghost, Horror, Science Fiction, Short Stories, Supernatural, Thrillers
20th Century Ghosts has been sitting unread on my bookshelf for over a year and I wish I had read it sooner! How could I neglect such a varied and well written short story collection? Joe Hill’s anthology is the perfect read for the spooky, Halloween season. The book contains 15 short stories, primarily in the horror and science fiction genres. In this collection you’ll find a haunted movie theatre, a deadbeat alcoholic with superpowers, a kid that transforms into a giant locust, and my favorite, an inflatable boy. There were plenty traditional scary stories, but also some that were just plain weird, which I loved.
One theme that is present across the collection is family, particularly father-son relationships. I find this especially interesting to track because Hill’s father is the master of horror, Stephen King. In Abraham’s Boys, two young brothers are intrigued by the mysterious past of their father, Abraham Van Helsing (yes from Dracula). Abraham’s office holds his secrets and is off limits to the boys. It is later revealed that their father is a vampire hunter. I see parallels between this fictional family and the Kings. I can picture Joe Hill and his brother Owen growing up with their dad, Stephen King, who would go to his office to create and battle monsters through his writing. I explore the meaning of the story’s twist ending and analyze other fathers present in Joe Hill’s writing in this week’s musing: “What is it Like Having Stephen King as a Father?”
In Pop Art (I love a title that doubles as a pun) the narrator is friends with an inflatable boy, named Arthur. This story is just as absurd as it sounds, but it features one of my favorite fictional friendships. The narrator constantly worries for the safety of his fragile friend, who is susceptible to popping or deflating while around sharp objects. The story also features the contrast between the narrator’s unstable home and Arthur’s caring and supportive parents.
Another favorite of mine is The Cape. As someone who is burnt out from the superhero genre, I was pleasantly surprised by this story. Eric, a young boy, discovers he can fly when he wears an old towel. But the towel is lost, and he doesn’t come across it until years later when he is an unemployed alcoholic living in his mom’s basement. What made this story compelling was the complex relationship between Eric and his brother.
There are too many great stories to dig into in this review, so here are brief snippets about other standouts in the collection:
Best New Horror: This story had one of my favorite literary tropes, a writer protagonist. This one gave me Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibes
You Will Hear the Locust Sing: A boy transforms into a locust one day while in his bedroom after eating too many bugs. Another awesomely weird and absurd story
Better than Home: Another father-son story, this one more heartwarming. This focuses on baseball, which is Stephen King’s favorite sport.
My Father’s Mask: This one was creepy and unsettling, can’t say I completely understood what was happening. Please let me know if you have any theories!
The Black Phone: There is a film adaptation in the works for The Black Phone, by Blumhouse Productions. I wonder why they chose to adapt this story, I found it to be one of the least interesting in the anthology.
20th Century Ghosts will be the first thing I recommend to anyone looking for a spooky book to read this Halloween. The collection has the perfect balance of scares and absurdity. I hope you enjoy!