There probably was never a time when Joe Hill wasn’t going to be an author. A large part of this suspicion stems from the obvious fact that he is the son of Stephen King, Destroyer of Forests. If ever a writer were to give birth to a Quincy Adams version of himself, it would be King, so committed is he to his craft and so immersed in the realm of the phantasmagorical. Besides (more likely due to) this tremendous influence, a greater part of 20th Century Ghosts exhibits a strong preoccupation with obsession and aimlessness, the ruling twin emotions of any tortured writer. As diverse as his subjects are, Hill leaves behind a mark that laces each story with his thrill at spinning a yarn. Thanks to that palpable excitement, a primary joy of this collection is how fun all the segments are, written with a light step that nonetheless disturbs, thrills, and delves deeply into human trauma. The reader can tell how comfortable Hill is with himself, not least because of the brutally honest characterizations (that incidentally go so far as to cast many father figures in a villainous or absent role) or his unsparing examinations of adolescence, but mostly in the easy way he strings his stories together and builds tension with a mere flick of his wrist. It’s not just for any reason that he starts off the collection with meta story “Best New Horror,” showcasing his oneness with the genre and planting himself firmly beside the reader as the stories unfold.
Hill puts a spin on many familiar scenarios and more often than not comes out feeling fresh. At least a couple pitches come off as derivative at first, but Hill consistently makes each story his own, exploring depths left hidden by earlier texts. The most egregious example, “You Will Hear the Locust Sing,” is unfortunately the poorest, its concept being taken way over the top for a dully shocking ending. Still, it works as an adaptation of The Metamorphosis that translates the original tale’s hopeless alienation into teenage rage. Its adolescent angle falls in line with the rest of the collection, and distinguishes itself from the original in that the young narrator brings his eccentricities, and quite possibly his insectoid fate, upon himself. Just that kernel of an idea is enough to recall Franz Kafka’s classic, but Hill adapts it so thoroughly, laying it out in the Midwest sun to rust and rot, that he brings it back smelling and feeling like an empty gravel-encrusted oil can. Another strength of the collection is that no two stories are alike, sharing only a couple common threads in the omnipresence of supernatural phenomena and an unrelenting focus on broken homes. At times it can feel like Hill is too dependent on the travails of the divorced and emotionally abused to pre-darken his stories, no matter how blackly comic some are, and when one story after another gawks voyeuristically at damaged souls treading water it can leave one feeling kind of icky. “Locust…” is one such story, joined by “Best New Horror,” “Pop Art,” “In The Rundown,” and “Voluntary Committal.” The gloomy focus is lifted occasionally, like in the bittersweet “Better Than Home,” which depicts the relationship between a flawed baseball manager and his quirky son. It does so well creating an aura of undefined discomfort that, without ever being overtly scary, it still works amidst the stories of cinephile specters and human sized insects, being very much a part of the mysterious world Hill has created.
Beyond the family issues Hill’s writing is defined by that curious dichotomy between aimlessness and obsession, and quite often how the former can lead to the latter. This is perhaps best exemplified by the narrator of “My Cape,” who becomes slave to the hope of rediscovering a superpower he wielded once in his youth during a freak accident. Eventually he stumbles across it and, finding it laughably underwhelming, still perseveres to master it. Whether it’s the dutiful theater owner of “20th Century Ghost” who fears for the future of his business, the editor tracking down the untraceable author of a particularly engrossing short story of “Best New Horror,” or a resentful video store clerk dwelling on the past in “In The Rundown,” characters constantly ruminate on their current trajectory and their powerlessness at changing their courses, their listlessness often motivated by the desire to witness something extraordinary. Readers will even notice a cheerful inversion of this longing for the supernatural in the touching “20th Century Ghost,” Hill’s love letter to the movies, where an audience member’s fascination with a great movie is enough to provoke a visit from beyond the grave.
20th Century Ghosts speaks volumes for Hill’s ability to represent the best of Rust Belt literature, crafting stories set somewhere in the matrix of small towns dotting the woods from Maine to Illinois. More often than not stories emerge from broken homes, from world-weary perspectives that are already acclimated to the surreal, so that the supernatural occurs naturally. It isn’t just the monsters and ghosts that are alarming, but the trauma so easily imagined happening to real people, coming from real people in many instances, that make Hill’s stories so troubling. The way he tells things, humanity is the most macabre aspect of it all. Hill is strongly aware of this, and his empathy for even the most despicable characters is enough to explain why Hill so often turns the lens in on himself, marveling at a writer’s obsession with human frailty, half wondering why he subjects himself to their problems in the first place.
Hill may be eager to avoid some degree of association with his father out of a matter of pride, especially around the time 20th Century Ghosts appeared and he was more or less just starting out, but comparisons are inevitable. Hill marks his narrators as writers just as often as King does, sometimes so mildly that one must wonder what positive difference it makes, since it’s just as often distracting as it is informative of the character. The narrator of final story “Voluntary Committal” makes a passing reference to his profession in a single line in the last couple of pages, and its only purpose is to propose the idea that Hill has wheedled his way into his own story. Taken as a whole this tendency gives the collection a sense of cohesion, granting it some more authority on the grounds that the narrators are haunted into the profession and doing their damnedest to tell their stories. But still, for those who find this kind of thing irritating, it would be best to avoid “Scheherazade’s Typewriter,” the bonus story hidden in the afterword, a cutesy burst of flash fiction that upon finishing only seems to pad Hill’s ego and build an aura of mystery around him. His easy way with words is an enviable endowment; much like King he maintains a conversational streak, wielding words through the blunt opinions of his characters, and peppering his narration with pop culture references that only occasionally betray the tastes of the writer rather than the character who is supposed to be thinking them up. These are the most glaring comparisons that could be made from a casual reader of King (I’ll pick up anything with a promising premise, but I will never be a completist), and they only serve to accent what is an exciting novelist’s burgeoning career. Hill will continue to cast his macabre eyes over the world and write about it, and now’s the perfect time to delve into his back catalogue while it’s still small enough to easily digest.