Quickie review: 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

When is a book that you give 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads a minor disappointment? I guess when it’s uneven, and held back by weaker material in the middle that could have been left out.

At its best, 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill is a top-notch collection of creepy, Twilight Zone influence dark fantasy and horror. It’s worth pointing out, now that everybody now knows Joe is Stephen King’s son, that despite that parentage, and the word “ghosts” in the collection title and “horror” in the title of the first story, this isn’t really a horror collection. A few stories have a psychological horror “tingle,” and some include horror elements, but overall the mood is pretty quiet.

Overall the collection shows above-average strength, but in my opinion that 4-star level is not reached by a bunch of 4-star stories, but a mix ranging from the fantastic (such as “Best New Horror,” “Pop Art,” and the title story) to the mundane and disappointing. Several more tepid pieces fill out the middle, and for me dissipate some of the energy built up in the best stuff at the very beginning and the end.

The worst thing I can say about it is that I had completely forgotten all details of several of the stories by the time I finished the book, and had to refer back to the table of contents to remind myself what happened in between the more powerful beginning and end. On the positive side, there is some really strong, wonderful material in here and I’d rather judge a story collection by its strongest pieces than the weaker ones. To be fair, this is Hill’s first collection and first book of any kind, so it includes some of his earliest published work. Hill made clear with his subsequent books (two very enjoyable novels, Heart Shaped Box and Horns) that his star is ascendant.

Ideally the editors might have removed a few of the less inspired or energetic stories from the middle, such as “You Will Hear the Locust Sing,” “Abraham’s Boys,” “In the Rundown,” and “Better Than Home” and either present a shorter collection with higher impact, or include instead some newer material more on the level of the best pieces at the very beginning and end. I think I’d rather read a 200 page book that sustains its strength, than a 300 page book with some 3-star stories in the middle.

I’d hate to bitch too much about a collection with great stuff in it like “Pop Art” and “Best New Horror.” If I seem somewhat disappointed, it’s just that unevenness through the middle. I’ve read some great story collections recently, and at one point thought this one might be right up there,but it’s still worth checking out. Just skip a few of the stories in the middle, if they seem to you like they might be drifting a little.

Words In: Horns by Joe Hill

Just finishing up Horns by Joe Hill, in audiobook format. Hill’s first novel Heart Shaped Box was one of my favorite new discoveries of last year, a somewhat dark, edgy book of clever, compact nastiness. If you didn’t already know this, Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son, and decided to try writing under a pseudonym to see if he could have a career of his own without his dad’s influence. Eventually his cover was blown, but he continues to use the name. His real-life name is Joe Hillstrom King so the pen name is really just the first half of his full, proper name anyway. Hey, maybe I should try to get published as “Michael Jay?”

The earlier book followed a somewhat washed-up rock-and-roller whose life is turned upside down when he purchases an old man’s suit that turns out to be cursed. Hill’s follow-up, Horns, likewise observes the intrusion into a character’s life of a dark influence. In this case, a year after Ig Parrish’s girlfriend is raped and murdered (a crime for which he was the main suspect, though no case is ever brought against Ig or any other culprit) Ig Parrish finds himself with a pair of devil-like horns sprouting from his forehead. And not just horns, but a strange influence over everyone he comes across, a certain power over their will, and insight into things they’ve done before that they wouldn’t want anyone else to know.

His life has already been essentially ruined as the book begins, as his girlfriend is gone, and everyone who knows them, including Ig’s own family, thinks Ig killed her and got away with it. Having hit bottom, Ig follows the power and influence of the horns, and though they bring him a lot of trouble they also help him to discover some facts about troubling events in his life, including his girlfriend’s murder.

Hill’s short story collection Twentieth Century Ghosts, followed by the top-notch debut novel Heart Shaped Box and now his sophomore novel effort Horns, are enough to establish him as one of the strongest talents working in the field of suspense and horror fiction. His writing has a lot of similarities to his own father’s early work, in particular such high points as The Shining, Dead Zone, and Carrie.

Overall I’d judge Horns to be slightly below the standard of the first novel, though still worth reading and still indicative of the likelihood of strong future work coming from this writer.