Fiction Reviews

20th Century Ghosts

(2005/2007) Joe Hill, Gollancz, 14.99, hrdbk, 389pp, ISBN 0-575-08192-5


This collection was first published in 2005 by PS Publishing and gathers together stories from 1999 to 2005 from various sources; this new Gollancz edition features the addition of one new story (buried in the acknowledgements for no real reason).

Like most collections the stories are of variable quality, though in the case of Hill even the less spectacular tales are still very good, and the best are excellent. Despite the title of the volume, not all of these stories are actually horror and not all of them have any fantastic element whatsoever. What they do all have is heart. And humour (though the humour is often black, wry and, sometimes, detached). 20th Century Ghosts is a multi-award-winning collection (at least five for the book itself, plus more for individual stories therein) and it is easy to see why when you read it - each tale, no matter how slight, sucks you in effortlessly and embraces you through to the ending, whether thoughtful and poignant, or abrupt and violent.

'Best New Horror' is formulaic, precisely in order to deconstruct the formula (protagonist searches for something precious/new, but finds horror and death instead); '20th Century Ghost' is about a ghost in a cinema, but is as much about the cinemas, and the experiences of going to them, being ghosts themselves (anyone over 30 seeing the rise of the multiplex will understand this); 'Pop Art', on the other hand, is a gentle and funny fantasy involving a boy whose best friend is inflatable; 'You Will Hear the Locust Sing' is Franz Kafka by way of 50s SF giant insect movies; probably the most outright horrific tale is 'Abraham's Boys' from the anthology The Many Faces of Van Helsing, in which two boys grow up with their father's strange obsession and have to undergo a perverse initiation rite; 'Better Than Home' is a hymn to fathers; 'The Black Phone' has a kidnapped boy in a cellar receiving calls from his abductor's previous victims; 'In the Rundown' depicts a potentially fatal case of mistaken identity; 'The Cape' is an accomplished little chiller that shows what happens when a boy discovers the ability to fly; and 'Last Breath' features an unusual museum of peoples' dying breaths; 'The Widow's Breakfast' is a 'shaggy joke' story; 'Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead' is a romance that just happens to take place on the set of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead; while 'My Father's Mask' is a surrealist fantasy; the standout story, for me at any rate, is the final tale in the book 'Voluntary Committal', which sees a near autistic youngster able to construct mazes that lead right out of reality.

There is something here for everybody. The stories are all well-written, the humour is not forced, the characters are believable, the emotional depth is not contrived, and the imagination is controlled with nothing allowed that doesn't serve the purpose(s) of the tales. Highly recommended.

Tony Chester

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