A few months ago, I read Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, and while I didn’t think it was without flaws, I thought it was a satisfyingly creepy, subtle, modern ghost story. I was interested enough to pick up his other work, which was actually published before Heart-Shaped Box, a book of short stories called 20th Century Ghosts. And wow, Joe Hill is punching out the short fiction in a way debut writers don’t often do: with confidence, texture, power, chilling horror, and occasional moments so weird and upsetting it makes your world spin. (In a good way.)
The first story of the collection is a good example. “Best New Horror” is about Eddie Carroll, a publisher of a yearly anthology called (of course) Best New Horror. He comes across the first story in a long time that’s made him sit up and pay attention. “Buttonboy” is a really good horror story with a really scary ending, a great piece of American fiction. (We don’t get to read it, but we get to hear about it at length, and it’s significant to the plot, but not in the way you’re thinking right now.) He has some trouble finding the author to get permission to use it, and the clues he finds along the way make the author seem stranger and stranger. As a reader of horror stories, you know what’s going to happen, what always happens in stories like this. And it does. But not in the way you’re thinking right now. The last paragraph of the story was a surprise that left me grinning into space, totally satisfied, unwilling to start another story lest it not be quite so good.
They’re not all that good. Some are relatively unremarkable (though all are well-written.) Some are loving homages to B-movies like Them!, which isn’t as much to my taste (though it might be to yours.) There aren’t any great female protagonists, and Hill has the same fat-phobia that seems to haunt most horror writers (what’s up with that, anyway?) But some of the stories are transcendent. “Pop Art” isn’t even horror. It’s an oddball, lovely story of friendship and fragility and letting go. “Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead” may take place on the set of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, but it has nothing to do with zombies; it’s about learning your limitations, and maybe about pushing past the ones you weren’t aware you had.
Some of the stories are wonderfully, chillingly weird: “My Father’s Mask” is very nearly Robert Aickman-esque (I dare not try to give a plot), and “Last Breath” reminded me of some of Roald Dahl’s stories for adults: it describes a museum whose collection is jars full of human beings’ dying breath. “Abraham’s Boys” is a multilayered story about Van Helsing and his sons, and what happens when boys begin to realize that their father isn’t perfect. Other stories have serious bite, at the end or in a longer, more poisonous way, like the novella “Voluntary Committal”. But all these stories are worth reading. Joe Hill has some real, dark, interesting talent. I’ll definitely be looking out for more.