Even the stories in this collection that don’t aim to deliver more than a plot twist and a good scare are polished gems. And some pieces qualify as priceless masterpieces.
“Best New Horror” asks the question, who’s weirder: horror writers, horror readers, or the horror editors who bring the two together? Hill employs nice story-within-a-story framing techniques is this modern take on the classic EC-style horror tale.
“20th Century Ghosts” is the only traditional ghost story in this collection. It’s an effective ode to old movie houses and the people who love — and haunt — them.
“Better Than Home” and “Voluntary Committal” both deal with living with — and loving — people with mental disabilities. Hill demonstrates the challenges and mysteries of such relationships beautifully in this passage from “Voluntary Committal.”
“At times, my brother made me think of one of those tapered, horned conch shells, with a glossy pink interior curving away and out of sight into some tightly wound inner mystery.”
Great writers make it look easy, and Hill is no exception. Saying he has “a way with words,” is a massive understatement. Saying, “Hill has his way with words” is more accurate. He bends them to his will, and makes them do his bidding in tales like “The Cape” and “Last Breath.” These tales flow so naturally, it’s easy to overlook the skill required to create them.
The best writing crafts words to convey great ideas. This is demonstrated in “Pop Art,” another tale about loving a disabled person. In this case, the affliction is, well … inflatibility.
The narrator’s childhood friend is an blow-up boy named Art. (“Pop Art” … because he’s, like, a balloon. Get it?) It’s an absurd joke, (see SpongeBob SquarePants’ “Bubble Buddy” episode for another brilliant take on the same concept) except Hill renders it so poignantly, it becomes a masterful mediation on life, death, and life after death.
Art dreams of being an astronaut, traveling to worlds beyond this one, then realizes everyone gets the chance to live this dream with death’s ultimate release.
“You get an astronaut’s life whether you want it or not. Leave it all behind for a world you know nothing about. That’s just the deal.”
Art possesses a Zen-like serenity that eludes the narrator, a boy who is all too familiar with the world’s harsh cruelties. When Art tells him an angry dog named “Happy” would be more pleasant if it wasn’t penned up, the narrator disagrees.
“It is my belief that, as a rule, creatures of Happy’s ilk — I am thinking here of canines and men both — more often run free than live caged, and it is in fact a world of mud and feces they desire, a world with no Art in it, or anyone like him, a place where there is no talk of books or God or the worlds beyond this world, a place where the only communication is the hysterical barking of starving and hate-filled dogs.”
Hill hits it on the head, and out of the park with this description of life in a world of cruel, artless dunderheads.
If pressed to find a flaw in 20th Century Ghosts, my only critique would be too many of the stories use a child protagonist, which is a kind of writer’s crutch. Casting a kid as a hero can be a cheap literary trick because:
- It allows you to dumb down your story, seeing things through “the eyes if a child.”
- It gives your characters a reason to do stupid things, because, “they’re just kids!”
- It hijacks the reader’s own childhood memories, imbuing the kid characters with an intimacy and nostalgia the writer didn’t earn.
Admittedly, this is more of a personal writing peeve than a criticism. Hill writes amazing stories. His ideas are fresh, and his characters are honest, engaging, and human no matter what their age.
Maybe it’s uncool to say, but Joe Hill has big shoes to fill — his father is Stephen King, after all. One of the reasons he writes under the name Joe Hill is because doesn’t want his work compared to his Dad’s, and to dispel any belief he was given a publishing contract because of his family heritage.
Joe Hill needn’t worry. He might be following in his old man’s footsteps, but he’s wearing snowshoes, and leaving pretty impressive tracks of his own.