Tuesday, December 11, 2007

20th Century Ghosts, by Joe Hill

(hb; 2005, 2007: story anthology)

Overall review:

This is one of the best short story anthologies I've read in a long while. It's up there, excellence-wise, with Clive Barker's three-volume Books of Blood, Richard Christian Matheson's Dystopia: Collected Stories, Stephen King's Night Shift and Ray Bradbury's The October Country -- favorites of mine.

Hill is a master storyteller, with a flair for clever sublime end-lines (reminiscent of another writer I admire, Robert Bloch). If you love short stories, you should be reading this sixteen-story anthology. Not a literary stinker in this bunch.

Review, story by story:

"Best New Horror" - A falling-apart-at-the-seams horror editor (Eddie Carroll) is turned on to an exciting, elusive writer whose disturbing stories drive Carroll to seek him out, with a result both expected and terrifingly wrong. Hill's able writing and effective foreshadowing makes this tale work -- in lesser hands, it wouldn't have.

"20th Century Ghost" - Gentle, sweet-natured tale about a woman (Imogen Gilchrist) whose of love of cinema defies Death. Memorable, classic piece.

"Pop Art" - Cleverly titled first-person account of an asocial boy who befriends an inflatable sixth-grade classmate, Arthur Roth. Funny, original, melancholic and ultimately inspiring. One of my favorite stories in this collection.

"You Will Hear the Locusts Sing" - An adolescent boy wakes up transformed into a locust -- and is delighted. Excellent thematic flip-flop of Kafka's "Metamorphosis".

"Abraham's Boys" - The Van Helsing brothers, sons of the famous vampire-executioner, discover their legacy. Well-written, ironic.

"Better Than Home" - An anxiety-ridden boy (and son of a Major League baseball player) talks about his boyhood, even as it happens. Pleasant, solid.

"The Black Phone" - Stunning, clever piece about a kidnapped boy (John) who's thrown into a basement with a supposedly-disconnected phone. One of my favorite entries in this anthology.

"In the Rundown" - A socially-inept store clerk encounters a roadside murder scene. Solid, this.

"The Cape" - A resentful ne'er-do-well accidentally finds a childhood blanket-turned-cape that allows him to fly. Excellent, with a sneaks-up-on-the-reader denouement.

"Last Breath" - Delightfully Bradbury-esque macabre tale about a retired doctor whose "museum of silence" contains the final exhalations of the now-dead. One of my favorite stories in this collection.

"Dead-Wood" - Trees with the ability to haunt: this uber-short piece is an interesting, confident and effective contrast to the other pieces in this anthology.

"The Widow's Breakfast" - Warm, sad tale about a rail-jumper who gets fed by a widow. Spine-freezing, sad end-line to this one.

"Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead" - 1978. During the shooting of Dawn of the Dead, a made-up zombified extra (Conroy) runs into an old high school sweetheart -- who's married, with a six-year old kid. Bittersweet, nostalgic - on multiple levels. One of my favorite stories here.

"My Father's Mask" - Unsettling, at-times surrealistic take on the family-on-the-lam story, as told by a pubescent boy. Strange, solid work.

"Voluntary Committal" - Twilight Zone-esque entry about a schizophrenic, maze-building boy who sets out to save his brother. Melancholic, effective, runs a bit long.

"Scheherazade's Typewriter" - "Hidden" charming story in the author's Acknowledgements section, about a haunted Selectric typewriter. One of my favorite stories in this collection.

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