Super Shorts I: 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

I admit that I had a certain amount of skepticism about Joe Hill as a writer. Being the son of Stephen King, I couldn’t help but think that just maybe he hadn’t quite earned his entrance into the world of publishing the way that other writers had.

I felt a little vindicated with this feeling when I read his novel Heart Shaped Box, because I liked the book well enough, but I didn’t feel it was really ground-breaking or noteworthy in particular.

So, it was with a bit of a raised eyebrow that I noticed his short story collection 20th Century Ghosts had won the Stoker Award for Best Collection in 2005. Based on that award, I decided to give Hill another shot.

And I’m glad I did. 20th Century Ghosts is stellar collection of short stories. As you might expect, there’s a good portion of horror, other “supernatural” type stories, and even a couple that are surprisingly sweet natured.

20th Century Ghosts, by Joe Hill

There are two trends in the stories throughout this collection that set it apart from other “good” horror collections. The first is the sheer imaginativeness behind so many of the ideas. For example, Pop Art was based on perhaps the most absurd-sounding premise I’ve heard in a long time, but in the end was probably one the best and most emotional stories in the book. My Father’s Mask was disturbing in that it portrayed a don’t-look-too-closely world that seemed like ours, but had some damn unsettling things going on behind the scenes.

The second thing that Hill excelled at in these stories is breaking the expected “horror story” formats and cadences. Hill even pokes fun at this in the first story, Best New Horror, which is about a horror magazine editor who has seen it all and read it all a thousand times. Like that jaded and cynical editor, I found something new, interesting, and occasionally truly horrific in Hill’s stories. They are constantly taking unexpected turns leaving the reader (or in my case, the listener) off balance. They also tend to end at unexpected times, almost in mid-story sometimes (or at least that’s the way it felt), leaving the reader to stop, put away their expectations, and consider that ending — and the entire story in a new light.

Just a superb collection. I will definitely re-visit these stories again and again.

Five stars.

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24 thoughts on “Super Shorts I: 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

  1. I was disappointed in Heart-Shaped Box, a book I really wanted (and actually expected) to like more than I did. I’ve been meaning to read Hill’s short stories, though. I have this collection on my Nook. Thanks for the nudge.

    • Christopher — yes, I had the same expectation-disappointment feelings with Heart Shaped Box, and I’d sort of put Hill on the back burner. I thought this was a great collection. Particularly effective in audiobook format.

  2. How wonderful! I have often wondered how Stephen King’s son was doing, but I hadn’t gone “in search of”. Now it seems that I should!

  3. Oh, Goody! I’ve had the same reticence in reading Hill’s work (I just love his dad too much). But the curiosity was getting to me. I’m so glad to hear he’s worth the effort.

    • SS — I thought this was a particularly good collection — the audiobook that I had more stories than the original release, so look for a recent edition.

  4. I’m not a big Stephen King fan (not a big horror fan), so I probably wouldn’t be drawn to his son’s work, either. But one thing in Mr. Hill’s favor is that he uses the name “Hill” and not “King,” so he’s not trying to ride his dad’s famous coattails.

  5. I tend to groan at short stories (as in idea) but the FACT is, when I read selections from those “Best of ___” (year) collections, they kick my arse.

    • MT — I like the short story and novella formats. I think they force writers to think differently than when writing a novel. Brevity and editing really matter and I think are the difference between success and failure in the format.

  6. I put this down on my “to-read” list at Goodreads and requested it at my local library. I love a good horror story in the summer. And short stories are great, if only because if you weary of the genre, you can just come back later to another story. Thank you, Steve.

  7. Steve, I’m in the same place as Auntie B. I don’t really indulge the horror genre. Just not my cup of blood. But I do admire Hill for not shying away from the category just to distinguish himself. If it’s what he enjoys writing, then it’s what he should write.

    As for format, my stories usually start as ideas. Sometimes they start as characters, begging to tell their tale. Only in cases of submissions with strict word limitations, such as anthologies or contests, do I know the length before I know the story. It would be like purchasing the frame before painting the picture. :)

    • thorsaurua — I was glad to see this set of stories be so strong, because I don’t like the idea of his “fame” only coming from his parents.

      I love the picture frame analogy about stories and length. I wish more authors explored short stories and novellas.

  8. Excellent – just in time for campfire stories. I look forward to making this part of my new ghostly repertoire. Thanks for the review Steve, I also added this to my Goodreads list.

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