20th Century Ghosts
by Joe Hill
Published by Gollancz
Isn’t it strange that every mention of Joe Hill begins with his family history (look I’ve done it as well..doh!). Well suffice to say no-one comments favourably on my ability to change a 60 watt light bulb even though my father was a professional electrician (“look, he can only change that light bulb because of his fathers influence”) and I don’t get too many offers to rewire peoples houses (well not since the fire that is :-)) so surely its irrelevant. Well yes, but I suppose when your father is one of the best known and biggest selling authors in the history of the English language it’s inevitable.
What is clear though, is that it shouldn’t matter, the only thing that counts here is the quality of writing and Joe Hill has no problems on that front. So, I am delighted to say there will be no mention of the “K” word here. Hill only revealed his identity in 2007 after the stories in this collection had already been published (and had won awards), sure he may attain a greater degree of success now the secret is out but the stories won’t change!
20th century ghosts is a collection of 15 short stories (16 including the one cunningly hidden among the acknowledgements). They are firmly of the horror/supernatural genre but range widely from the truly horrific (Best New Horror) to those with only a passing nod to horror (Bobby Conroy Comes Back from The Dead). What they all have in common is both the standard of ideas and the impressive power of the writing. At times they read like an 18 certificate version of the Twilight Zone (that’s a good thing to my mind) at other times like one of those slightly disturbing foreign animated films you saw as a child, at all times they are hugely entertaining.
The first four stories in this collection are the strongest and I believe are up there with the classics. In particular “Pop Art” whilst only horrific in its demonstration of the effects of childhood bullying, achieves a degree of emotional engagement rarely found in a short story. If someone told you this could be achieved in a story about an inflatable boy, you would consider them crazy, well call me a teapot but read it and see if I’m not right. This surely tells you all you need to know about the quality of the writing.
As with all short story collections there are some that don’t work as well as others, “Better Than Home” and “The Widows Breakfast” are for me the weakest but even here we are talking merely good rather than brilliant. None of these stories fail, it’s just that some succeed better than others.
Joe Hill has the talent to be a truly brilliant author, thanks goodness he chose the horror genre and who knows in years to come we may see his books dominating bookshelves alongside the greats such as Lovecraft, Bradbury and even Stephen King (damn, I wasn’t supposed to mention him!!).
Rating 4 out of 5