20th Century Ghosts
by Joe Hill
20th Century Ghosts is a collection of short stories. I find that short stories are very hit or miss with me. Either I dislike them and want them to be over, or I really like them and wish the story were developed into a full novel. That said, I went into this collection of stories with an open mind as I’ve heard good things about Joe Hill. While I thought this was going to be a collection of ghost stories, some weren’t about ghosts at all. The stories included are:
Best New Horror
20th Century Ghost
You Will Hear the Locust Sing
Better Than Home
The Black Phone
In the Rundown
The Widow's Breakfast
Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead
My Father's Mask
Scheherazade’s Typewriter (included in the Acknowledgements)
Best New Horror is a story about an editor who is tired of all the same horror stories that come across his desk. When an intriguingly disturbing story arises, he chases down the writer to include it in his compilation. I found the story within the story a bit twisted for my tastes, but the overall story was wrapped up nicely in the end.
20th Century Ghost was a nice little story with a touching ending. It is a story about Alec Sheldon, the Rosebud Theater, and Imogene, a ghost who appears sometimes to watch movies and discuss them with theatergoers.
Pop Art has to be my favorite story of the bunch. The title is a pun in itself and my favorite parts of the story follow suit. Arthur Roth has been picked on and harassed his entire life for being different. Of course he’s different, he’s an inflatable boy. My favorite quote from this story:
“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.”
Again, I like it because of the play on words. A world without Art would be a sad world indeed.
You Will Hear the Locust Sing is a story about Francis and turning into an eight foot tall locust. One of my least favorite stories in the collection.
Abraham's Boys is a pick up on the Van Helsing story. Abraham, a vampire hunter, begins teaching his sons about the family business.
Better Than Home was one of my least favorites and not memorable to me. I kept wishing I would be done with it. Could be mostly because it centered around a dad and son and baseball. I know it’s not the point of the story, but I’m not a sports fan, so didn’t get sucked in to most of the story.
The Black Phone, though creepy and a bit disturbing, was also quite interesting. John gets kidnapped and locked in the basement where many boys before him have been murdered. His only connection to the outside world is a phone that is disconnected….but it rings in the night with the voices from the dead.
In the Rundown starts off with a video store employee leaving work and coming across a horrific scene. I enjoyed the story for the most part, but found the end very lacking. You’re led toward an ending, but instead of reaching it, you’re just left hanging.
The Cape was an interesting and turns out, twisted tale. Two young boys discover that a cape has magical abilities and allows them to hover or fly. I have to say, I didn’t see the end coming and chuckled to myself when it was over. Nice little twisted story.
Last Breath is a creepy story of a museum of Silence where various people’s last dying breaths are saved. In the silence you can hear what they say.
Dead-Wood was one of my favorites. It’s very short and touches on whether a tree can have a ghost. Great quote from this story: “Something that doesn’t know it’s alive obviously can’t be expected to know when it’s dead.”
The Widow's Breakfast was a weird story. It starts of with a homeless man who has recently lost a friend, jumps of a train before the station and encounters a family. The widow cooks him breakfast and gives him some clothes. The encounter with her daughters is a bit eerie and makes the story.
Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead is set in the backdrop of the making of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. It’s really a story about reuniting of friends and loves long past. The only thing eerie about it is the backdrop since the characters are made up as zombies.
My Father's Mask starts off with a teenager not wanting to go with his parents, who decided on a lark to go for the weekend to the lake house. It seems they like to do things last minute and like to play nonsensical games with their son. One of which is to wear a mask to hide themselves from the playing card people. Not a bad story, but not my favorite either.
Voluntary Committal is a story about Nolan and his brother Morris. Morris is something of a savant and can build great cities out of dixie cups, dominos, or even cardboard boxes. When his brother is threatened by a friend, Morris builds an elaborate design to help rid Nolan of the problem.
Scheherazade’s Typewriter is a story about a ghost in the machine. Her father used to stay up nights and type out three pages of ghost stories. Once he died, the typewriter would start up by itself at night and also type out three pages.
Other great quotes from this collection of stories:
“I hope if there is another world, we will not be judged too harshly for the things we did wrong here—that we will at least be forgiven for the mistakes we made out of love. I have no doubt it was a sin of some kind, to let such a one go.”
“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.”
“You know someone for a while and then one day a hole opens underneath them, and they fall out of your world.”
“In the end, people usually get a bit more of what they want than they can really handle, don’t they?”
“I don’t know who I’m writing this for. I can’t say who I expect to read it. Not the police anyway…..The urge to talk to someone about what I know is really almost more than I can bear, but this isn’t a story for the police. Believe me, it wouldn’t do them any good….And maybe, I have to admit that I’m writing this not to show it to anyone, but because I can’t help myself and a blank page is the only safe audience for this story I can imagine.”