Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Countdown Day 16: Literary Wrap-Up: 20th Century Ghosts

I haven't remarked on it here the last few days, but I did finish Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts a few nights ago. Like all anthologies, whatever the medium, the quality is variable, but I was overall pleased with the book. The high points were great, and the low points were few. Overall I think the title story, 20th Century Ghost, is the clear winner of the bunch. I may be biased, because I love melancholic ghost stories, but this one was creepy and sad and sweet in perfect measures. I don't think anything else in the book quite hits all those sweet spots for me, though each story has it's moments. I think the best way to describe the book as a whole is 'heartfelt.' I didn't like all of the stories, but they all at least contained a genuine thread of emotion in them. That's sometimes a problem with horror fiction, and short horror fiction in general, where the stories can often feel like guitar solos without a surrounding song; shock and awe with nothing to ground it or give it context. The stories here can be mysterious, and perhaps come across as incomplete, but I never doubted the emotion behind them.

I mentioned each of the first 8 stories previously over the course of this countdown, so I'll just mention the final 8(or 9, you'll see) here. In The Rundown is interesting, but is one of the possibly incomplete stories I mentioned. It feels like a short scene in the middle of a slasher movie as seen by one of those victims who stumbles into the movie just long enough to get killed. That's not strictly what happens here, but that's the feeling you get; that it's a small microscopic view of a larger story that the author isn't privy to. The Cape, about a man who discovers his baby blanket allows him to fly and uses this to petty, nefarious ends, is when I first started to notice a trick that Joe Hill uses often in his stories, and it started to bug me a bit. He frequently has narrators who are immensely unhinged, mentally and emotionally stunted, and yet can communicate eloquently and poetically about their plight. That's a forgivable sin, because it would be torture to read a 15 page stream of consciousness ramble full of typos, grammatical errors, and sentence fragments. And I can't say it hindered any of the stories, but it was something I noticed and it happened mainly in stories I didn't enjoy as much as the rest.

Last Breath feels very old fashioned, likened to Ray Bradbury in Christopher Golden's introduction, and I think that's apt. About a museum full of empty glass cases containing the last breaths of various people, some of them famous, some not. Dead-Wood is a simple idea, and told well. It's barely over a page long, just a handful of paragraphs, and it isn't even a story really. It's a concept, illustrated in a couple ways, and with a couple of lines at the end to provide the barest hint of a narrative. It's also pretty cool idea, although it's brevity was a wise choice. The Widow's Breakfast is a snapshot story without a real narrative arc, but it illustrates a very particular time and place. It doesn't have much to offer in terms of originality or depth, really, and it seems to be building to something that never happens, and ends rather abruptly. Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead, despite it's title, is one of two stories that don't feature anything even vaguely supernatural(the other was Better Than Home). It's a sweet story, and an interesting setting, but like a lot of short fiction is more about the way it's written than what it's about.

My Father's Mask is a deeply upsetting story, and also completely inexplicable. Everything in it seems to almost make sense, but never does. It's dream logic, and each choice Mr. Hill makes in this story feels familiar and correct, but has no logical consistency. Recapping it would be useless, because I'm not even sure I can accurately tell you what happened in the story. Voluntary Committal closes out the book, and it's the longest story in here. It's also the one that feels the most familiar, if not derivative. It's supernatural elements have been used before in countless tales, and in fact the entire story feels like Joe Hill's take on one particular subplot in his father's book The Tommyknockers. It was, however, the creepiest part of Tommyknockers(and arguably the best thing about that book), and I found it's execution almost as effective here. I'm probably coming off as too harsh on this story, because it was good and took a completely different angle on the idea, so it's not really fair to compare them.

After that, I'll suggest you stick through the Acknowledgements section at the end, because there's another brief story hidden there. Scheherazade's Typewriter, like most of the best ones in this book, is short and a bit sad, and it features a nifty bit of retconning for the entire collection, casting each story in a new light. I remain impressed overall with this collection from Joe Hill, who I had actually avoided due to the Stephen King relation. That seems odd, since I buy every Stephen King book in hardback as they come out, but there's always a stigma that follows when a child enters the same career as their highly successful parent. After this, however, I've added Joe Hill's novel Heart Shaped Box to my bedside pile. That pile is actually pretty tall right now, so it may be awhile still.

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