Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The "Ghosts" of Joe Hill

Earlier this year, I reviewed Joe Hill's "Heart-Shaped Box" for The Chronicle. I thought it was a particularly strong first novel, a straight-ahead, old-fashioned horror tale with a couple of neat, contemporary twists.

Because six months haven't passed since my last article about Hill, I won't be covering his next release, the short story collection "20th Century Ghosts." Which is too bad, because it's in many ways more impressive than "Heart-Shaped Box." The novel delivers what the reader of popular entertainment craves: compelling characters, narrative drive, a couple of don't-look-now set pieces. "2oth Century Ghosts" offers a much more troubling bundle of goods.

"20th Century Ghosts" will be released in October by William Morrow, but it was originally published in England by PS Publishing. Some of the stories have been reprinted in various "Best of..." anthologies and have won various major awards. So I don't feel like I'm spilling any beans by talking about it before its U.S. laydown date.

The title story riffs on the old "haunted cinema" set-up, "Best New Horrors" explicitly plays with time-worn genre cliches and "Last Breath" evokes Bradbury or Beaumont in their darker moods. But some of the stories are completely unlike anything else you've ever read. What are you supposed to make of "Pop Art," the story of an inflatable boy, or "My Father's Mask," in which a kid is taken on one of the worst vacations imaginable? It's clear from almost the start where the novella "Voluntary Commital" is headed, and yet it still ends up being surprising and affecting.

Because I wasn't under deadline, I read this volume in leisurely fits and starts over the course of two months, and I was always glad to get back to it, always shocked and gratified by what it offers.

Hill doesn't like to play up his literary pedigree, but it has to be said that "20th Century Ghosts" is as strong a collection as Stephen King's "Night Shift." Individually, Hill's stories remind me more of the work of Peter Straub, though, and that's high praise from me.

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