I've been a fan of Joe Hill for two years or so, first stumbling upon his novel Horns, then reading everything else of his that I could get my hands on, including his graphic novels and stand-alone short stories for Kindle. Ghosts was his first widely-published book, and the only thing of his that I had not read, until now.
Best New Horror starts the collection off with a bang. A disgruntled, apathetic editor of a horror journal seeks out the secretive author of the most shocking story he has ever read (which reminds me a bit of Sutter Cane in the film In the Mouth of Madness). This story gives nods to Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with an ending that is satisfyingly haunting.
Next is the titular story, 20th Century Ghosts, which was so unexpectedly beautiful that it nearly brought me to tears. It has hints of creepiness, but is really more a very sweet—and unique—love story, with an underlying thread of appreciation for classic cinema.
Pop Art: also lovely. It's about an inflatable boy, and it seems only Hill could write a story like that and play it straight. There is zero tongue-in-cheek or cuteness, and somehow, it works.
You Will Hear the Locust Sing pays direct homage to Kafka's The Metamorphosis (boy wakes up as a bug), but it is dark and sad and completely different. There are some gross-out moments, and it is far from a happy tale, but ultimately leaves you with a sense of wonder and stillness.
Better Than Home is a sweet, straight-forward story of a father and son with brokenness at its edges, and beauty at its center.
The Black Phone involves the sort of child-in-turmoil situation that Hill would later expand upon in NOS4A2. It's one of those where you keep going, 'oh god, please don't let such and such happen to the poor kid.' Some of it does, some of it doesn't. It has some chilling elements of the fantastic, and by the end, deserving parties get what's coming to them.
I had previously read The Cape in graphic novel form, though it differs quite a bit from this version. An interesting exploration of a flawed 'hero' becoming a villain because of troubling circumstances.
Last Breath, again, would have been right at home as a Twilight Zone script. Quick, creepy, original, great.
Dead-wood is one page, and in few words, presents some big ideas.
My Father's Mask is definitely the 'trippiest' of the bunch; both creepy and extremely bizarre. It is a tale that doesn't reveal all of its cards by the end, but the answers are there—I think—between the lines. Has a hint of Alice in Wonderland to it.
Voluntary Committal is the longest piece, close to a novella, and is parked appropriately at the end of the collection, because it's the best story in here. At the heart, it is a story of two brothers with a complicated relationship—one of whom has a mental disability that lends to some incredible, uncertain powers—but is wrapped in a cloudy blanket of imagination. I say cloudy because this story had wonderful, fascinating moments of childhood wonder, but also haunting, unhappy, otherworldly terror. The disabled brother has an almost savant-like knack for building breathtaking structures out of household items, such as Dixie cups, egg cartons, Legos, and ultimately cardboard boxes. Sometimes his structures create doors to other places, not all of them friendly.
Those were the stories that stuck out most for me, although all of them were good. I couldn't help but notice how many of these stories had children as their main characters, and how much of this collection deals with the imagination of youth and young people experiencing wonderful (or terrifying) things. Hill seems to have an appreciation for the things that kids go through, impossible or ordinary, and an aptitude to write from their perspective. His characters are real, and often broken, and you feel sympathy for many of them. That's what makes the scary parts all the more scary, because you've grown to care about the people to whom the bad stuff is happening.
I knew I was in for a treat with 20th Century Ghosts, but what I got was a sometimes brilliant, frequently beautiful, horrifying collection of stories; I gobbled them down in rapid succession. Hill is a talented and diverse author, able to be deep and thoughtful, or campy and gross. He can write sweet things or horribly twisted ones, and all of it works in its right place. This is the first truly 5-star book I've read in 2014.