December 14, 2009

20th Century Ghosts

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
Fiction - Horror (short stories)
2007 William Morrow
Finished 11/29/09
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Product Description

Imogene is young, beautiful, kisses like a movie star, and knows everything about every film ever made. She’s also dead, the legendary ghost of the Rosebud theater, and one afternoon in 1945, a boy named Alec Sheldon will have an unforgettable encounter with her... in the dark...

Arthur Roth is a lonely kid with a head full of big ideas and a gift for getting his ass kicked. It’s hard to make friends when you’re the only inflatable boy in town...

Francis is unhappy. Francis is picked on. Francis doesn’t have a life, a hope, a chance. Francis was human once, but that’s behind him now. Francis is an eight-foot tall locust, and all of Calliphora, Nevada will shudder to hear him sing...

John Finney is in trouble. The kidnapper locked him in a basement, a place stained with the blood of half a dozen other murdered children. With him, in his subterranean cell, is an antique phone, long since disconnected... but it rings at night, anyway, with calls from the dead...

Eric is a twentysomething burnout, who just lost a girlfriend and a job. Once, though, he was the Red Bolt, and with his home-made cape he could fly. Now the cape is back in his hands, and Eric’s future is looking up... and up...

Nolan Lerner is guilty. His past is a thing choked with secrets, blood – and sunflowers. Only Nolan can tell the story of what really happened one summer in 1977, when his younger brother, an idiot savant named Morris, built a vast cardboard fort, with secret doors inside, doors leading into other worlds...

Like Morris Lerner’s impossible cardboard fortress, 20TH CENTURY GHOSTS is big enough to get lost in, a maze filled with exits into a vast country of the surreal. Showcasing an assortment of dazzling ideas, GHOSTS is irresistible, addictive fun.

I haven't read many short story collections (Alice Munro and Eudora Welty are the only two authors who come to mind), but I've always said I don't care for short stories. Those that I've read all seem to blend together and are quickly forgotten. I also dislike the feeling of finally getting to know the characters and their situations, only to have the story end abruptly. But Joe Hill has converted me, at least as far as his short fiction is concerned. I loved everything about 20th Century Ghosts! I savored each and every story over the course of 6 weeks (perhaps that's the key!) and found myself thinking about the characters and plots long after closing the book. I especially liked that the stories weren't all super scary and that some were a bit reminiscent of The Twilight Zone, without freaking me out so much that I had to sleep with a light on.

Until I became a blogger, I never used to read book reviews. I still don't read published reviews in newspapers or magazines, but obviously as a blogger, I do read reviews by my peers. "A masterful storyteller" has become the ubiquitous descriptor for authors of broad abilities. I am guilty of littering my reviews with this cliche myself. And yet, Joe Hill truly is a master of his craft. Much like a camp counselor sitting around a campfire with a bunch of scared little kids, he sets the scene, establishes the characters and ever so slowly and gently leads his audience down a path full of twists and turns and dark shadows, never losing them along the way, and often times pushing them faster and faster toward their ultimate destination and climax. No detail is wasted. No line of dialogue unnecessary. Each sentence a polished gem.

I think the basis for my enjoyment of this collection was that each story was so utterly unique. There were some that were creepy and surreal and others that were very subtle--even tender and sweet. I can glance through the table of contents and remember each and every story. I can remember which ones made my heart race and which made me shudder. This is one of those books I'll enjoy picking up again in years to come, if only to re-read one or two stories at a time. And now that I've come to realize that this is a genre I do enjoy, I'll have to give Hill's father's short story collections a chance. I hear he's also pretty talented. ;) Any recommendations?

Further praise from a fellow blogger:

Bookfool writes: 20th Century Ghosts is an anthology of short stories and they are wildly disparate--some literary, some magical, two with ghosts, at least one so scary I had to set the book down for a few days. While there were a few that left me with the feeling, "What was the point of that?", the vast majority were engrossing and it was the moments of truth, the powerfully straightforward language, the absolute believability of his characters and the stunning creativity that set Hill's writing apart. There is seldom a feeling of stepping outside the pages--that "Oops, he lost me," moment when the reader realizes s/he has lost the ability to suspend disbelief. In fact, I kept having to remind myself, "It's not real; it's just fiction." That is a pretty strong recommendation, in and of itself.

I can hardly wait to get my paws on Joe Hill's up-and-coming new release, Horns, due out on February 16th. From what I've read, it's even better than his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box. Oh, boy!


  1. Les,
    Picked up a copy of this off the bargain racks at my store and just finished reading it about a week ago. I am a huge fan of short story collections, and this one was excellent. I felt like there were influences here from Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and of course, Stephen King. I have been recommending "Heart Shaped Box" to my customers and will see if I can add this one to their purchases.


  2. I used to think all short stories were terrible for exactly the same reason. It seemed like just as one was getting to know the characters things ended -- and not in a very satisfying way.

    It takes a very skilled writer to take you from start to finish and leave you satisfied with a short story. Joe Hill is obviously a pro. The story about the telephone is an homage to Jack Finney, btw, one of my favorite short story writers (and the author of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

    Now, you really must try Simon Van Booy. And, if you haven't read any of Nabokov's short stories, you definitely should. As to Stephen King . . . no idea. I've never really gotten into Stephen King's writing.

  3. I have not read this book, but I do enjoy his first book: Heart Shaped Box.

  4. Night Shift by Stephen King is excellent. How exciting to have these to read for the first time.

  5. gosh, he looks so much like the old man, it's scary...and the boy can write! Also anxiously waiting for Horns.

  6. Les-
    I am not a big fan of short stories either but your review has piqued my interest!
    I just wanted to stop by and wish you a belated Happy Birthday. Hope your day was delicious and full of good things.
    PS:a very long time ago, you offered me your copy of Benny and Shrimp because I had lamented about how I had missed a chance to get a free copy from the publisher. I didn't see your offer until way after the fact, and when I emailed you about it, my email bounced back. I am wondering if that book is still available. I would be more than willing to pay for shipping and whatever else you wanted! Just let me know...

  7. Night Shift is an excellent suggestion -- I also liked Nightmares and Dreamscapes and Four Past Midnight. Hill's dad can do a good short story too. In Four Past Midnight, my favorite is called Sun Dog. There's also The Library Police -- that's probably just me though.

  8. I didn't get to finish this one before it was due back at the library 'round RIP IV time. It's definitely a book I will re-check and finish, though. I enjoyed the short stories far more than Heart-Shaped Box (and I liked HSB a lot!). I found I had some problems with his pacing in HSB, but it was perfect for the shorts. I didn't know about Horns! I can't wait.

  9. One of my favorite books growing up was a collection of ghost stories written for young people. I don't know why I've never looked for the adult equivalent. Maybe I've been waiting for this one!

  10. Sorry for the delay with my response to all your wonderful comments. BUSY week! Gotta love working in retail. ;)

    BTW, my word verification for this comment is "laters." Pretty appropriate, I'd say. :)

    Lee - What a coincidence! We were probably reading it at the same time. I mentioned your comment about the Bradbury, Ellison and King, Sr. influences to Rod and he agreed. I'll have to try some of their stories. I know King & Bradbury have some. Does Ellison? Any recs?

    I hope work is busy for you, too. Have a great Christmas.

    Nancy - Isn't it funny how all it takes is a good collection of short stories and we have a complete different attitude about the genre? I'm glad I finally found an author who was able to draw me in, hold my interest, and wrap things up without making me feel like there was any rush to conclude the story. So many of Hill's characters are still running around in my head. I loved the telephone story and the one about the inflatable boy.

    I have a bunch of gift cards to use after Christmas and I WILL BUY Simon's book. :)

    Diane - If you enjoyed Heart-Shaped Box, I'm pretty sure you'd love this collection.

    Raidergirl3 - Night Shift. Check. Thanks! :)

    Bybee - Doesn't he??!! Yep, he can certainly write. Can you imagine the bedtime stories he heard as a kid? :)

    Kim - I wasn't a fan either, so maybe this will help you discover a new genre. Let me know what you think, if you wind up reading the book.

    Thanks for the belated birthday wishes. I had a great week of celebration.

    Oh, and I saw this note about Benny & Shrimp and yes, you may have it. I sent you an email requesting your snail mail addy. Let me know and I'll get it in tomorrow's mail.

    Katya - Another vote for Night Shift. This is going on the Must Read List. Thank you, thank you! I'll also look into Nightmares and Dreamscapes and Four Past Midnight. Just the title Sun Dog has piqued my interest. And The Library Police. Ooooh! :) Thanks, Katya.

    Andi - This may be one to own so you can flip through and re-read when the mood strikes. I know there are a couple of stories I'd like to revisit now that I know the premise of the tale. Let's hope the pacing of Horns is bit more even than HSB. I can't wait either. Wish I could get my hands on an ARC!

    Lisa - This sounds like it would be right up your alley. It's a perfect read for Carl's RIP Challenge. Maybe try to find a copy and save it for next October. :)

  11. Hi Les--
    I just now had moment to come over here to check your response to me. I don't think I recieved your email,but I will check again when I get home from work tonight.

  12. Kim - Got your email with your address. It will go out in tomorrow's mail, weather permitting!

  13. Les,
    I think that I got you to read Harlan Ellison's "Jefty Is Five" when we worked together. It is a about a boy that never gets older. It is my favorite short fiction ever. Joe Hill's story about the balloon boy is very similar in style.


  14. Lee - I only vaguely remember Jefty Is Five, but yes, it was you who told me about it. I'll have to read it again!

  15. I see I never thanked you for inspiring me to read this book. I loved it so much I bought a copy for my sister who is a writer and wants to work more on her short stories.

  16. Katya - Wonderful!! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I hope to re-read it sometime around October. It was so good!


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