It's official: Joe Hill is a Reading Buddy Writer.
Both of his books — Heart-Shaped Box (which I reviewed in January 2008) and, now, 20th Century Ghosts — frightened me enough to want to have someone else in the room, especially when I was foolish enough to read them at night.
I can see why 20th Century Ghosts won a host of horror genre awards. It's freakin' scary — but not all stories are scaring us equally. I read the stories in order, and I read them occasionally. (Usually, I would read one, which would whet my appetite, then I'd scare myself with the next one and put the book down.) Hill is not looking to leap out from behind the door and scream, "Boo!" Instead, he employs a number of different methods by which we can be horrified.
The stories veer wildly from the bizarre to the creepy to the chilling to the outright frightening, then back to bizarre. A couple are pretty tame in comparison to ones that might surround it. Many are character studies in which the supernatural is a player, but the character is the main event. A couple are too subtle — until the reader gets to the "punchline," which is well worth the read. Some names are familiar, borrowed from other horror stories or other media in the horror genre.
I recommend reading them in the order the author arranged them. I liked them that way — it gave me a chance to catch my breath from time to time.
Hill starts out with a bang with "Best New Horror." An editor receives a story that is wholly original — and, frankly, terribly disturbing — and wants to publish the story in his magazine. He has to track down the author, and the stories he hears about this man are unsettling. However, horror stories are filled with people who just can't believe what they hear is anywhere near true. If they practiced an ounce of caution, there would be no story. The ending of Hill's story is as disturbing as the fiction within the fiction. (At least, we hope it's fiction.)
Then there's the title story, which involves a movie theater, a young girl in the audience and just a little death.
After that there's an inflatable boy, a boy-turned-atomic-insect, an autistic child who is loved and accepted by his father, an abducted youth who's not alone after all, a man who can fly, a boy in the wrong place at the wrong time, a doctor who collects something priceless from the dying — and the list goes on and horrifyingly on.
His lead characters are all male. It's a little surprising, and a little disappointing. I was floored by Hill's credible and thorough development of female characters in Heart-Shaped Box and looked forward to his female characters in the next book of his I read. However, this collection was published before his novel, so I won't complain. If anything, it intrigues me to see how he will continue his great character development.
If you like horror, you will like this book. I'm not very good at hunting down individual stories before they're collected and handed to me, but for Hill, I'd search the shelves (or, more realistically, set up a feed to alert me to all things Joe Hill).
I just wish that, whenever I saw the spine or covers of his books, I didn't start humming "The Ballad of Joe Hill" (which, in my head, sounds like Joan Baez's famous 1969 Woodstock performance). However, I also start to dance whenever I hear "Fergalicious," which is much more embarrassing than humming, so I guess I should count my blessings.