Tuesday, December 21, 2010

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

The title of this book is terrible, but that is about the only thing you'll hear me complain about.  Joe Hill is the unequivocal Crown Prince of Modern Fiction, but his parentage and my pretense aside; boy oh boy does he deliver.  
This short story collection certainly has circumstances that will put your nerves on edge, but it's not horror fiction.  It is at times scary but more due to a sense of the unknown created by the author than any abject descriptions of gore.  It's also laugh out loud funny, outright charming, and unabashedly sentimental at times.  There is great variety here and a whole lot to like.
"Pop Art" is a story that is, quite literally, too good to be in any collection.  Everything else pales in comparison--no matter how good--to this story of an inflatable boy, his trials at school and growing up, and a surprising friend he makes.  Upon finishing this story I remember asking myself out loud, "Did Peter S. Beagle write this?"  What better compliment can I make?  "Better than Home" is in the same vein and so sweet as to be saccharine, yet never infringed on the grounds of cloying.  There is a very bright kid with some serious nervous conditions that finds he doesn't need special treatment, medication or facilities, for none of these aides eases his anxiety like the attention of what is certainly one of the greatest father's in fiction.  Hill treads the waters that separate melodrama and heightened emotional realism with profound skill and the affect on the reader couldn't be stronger.  However, not all is sweet and tender in this collection.
There are plenty of stories involving children in peril.  "In the Rundown" is a nice take on 'wrong place at the wrong time' as is the all too visceral (and, unfortunately, disturbingly tangible) story of child abduction in "The Black Phone."  It's in these story that Hill jolts the reader the most.  Things don't usually happen the way we want, nor are the endings fully explained; it's the issues that go unknown to the reader--what we 'fill in the blanks'--that enables these stories to stick in our minds as long as they do.  
Despite Hill's originality (which is generously on display in this collection), he also nods to past writers' works.  Francis Kay, wake up one morning as a very large insect in the Kafka-esque story "You Will Hear the Locust Sing" and "Abraham's Boy's" is the most unexpected Van Helsing telling you may ever come across.
The only down spot for me was "Dead-Wood."  At only four pages it was the shortest in the collection but I don't feel there was enough material here to expand on and what was present was too weak to be included.  It turns out angry, non-sentient trees who loudly rustle their leaves as the wind blows really isn't that disturbing… or at least not to me. 
"Voluntary Committal" was without doubt the strongest in the collection, with the exception of the previously mentioned "Pop Art."  The story of boy, Morris, who is a bit slow and retains his penchant for building forts into adulthood.  There are missing people who are never found and none strong enough to see where the cardboard tunnels of Morris' creation lead.  The combination of clever writing and unexpected scenarios make the mundane feel fresh and left me thinking, "How have I not come across this guy before?"  

The title is as misleading as it could possibly be with the exception of the first story, "Best new Horror."  I can suggest a host of better titles: "Joe Hill's Ass-Kicking Fiction;" "Read this Book;" "Damn!;" and those are just off the top of my head.  I'd say this book were criminally under-read if it sold fifty million copies.  Simply put, Joe Hill is a manifestation of everything that's great about fiction.    

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