I have now written this review three separate times. I started with an anecdote about how I came to possess 20th Century Ghosts and Heart-Shaped Box, but I think that what I really want to tell you about is the author himself. To be brief, I kept running into references about Joe Hill and what a master storyteller he was, but had neglected to add anything of his to my collection. While in Maine, Chris picked me up 20th Century Ghosts, and afterwards a copy of Heart-Shaped Box arrived in my mailbox.
20th Century Ghosts is like no other book I’ve ever read in my entire life. Reading it can be likened to an out of body experience. From the very first page I got the strangest sensation. I kept imagining myself sitting in a dark theater, just Hill and I, only he isn’t there at first. He miraculously shows up just as the beginning of the movie comes to life on the screen. He’s slouched down in the chair with a huge box of popcorn which he crunches noisily, eyes wide like saucers. He is wearing a black knit sweater with a white undershirt and jeans, just a regular patron at a movie theater. He leans over and tells me how excited he is and how he can’t wait to see what will happen next. As we continue to watch the movie (living depictions of the stories) I gradually forget he’s with me. Out of nowhere, he leans forward and says reverently through a mouthful of buttery popcorn, “Can you believe it? I never saw that coming!” Then he leans back in his seat and we continue watching, his eyes glued to the screen with a look of ecstasy on his face. I’m sitting there slack-jawed, unable to tear my eyes away long enough to blink for fear of missing one little exquisite detail.
The entire book gives off this feeling. The stories are written so naturally that the reader can’t help but feel more like a spectator. Each story seems to have a life of it’s own, and just when you think you know the ending, it changes into a totally different scenario. The stories are all wildly inventive, yet somehow plausible. I think H.P. Lovecraft would have liked Joe Hill’s stories – they are all based in a very real and vivid world, with just enough of the absurd as to make them heavily unsettling.
Joe Hill is more than a writer, he is a master puppeteer. He knows just which strings to pull to strip away his reader’s defenses. With a few words he can pierce any reader straight to the heart. When I first started reading 20th Century Ghosts, I thought I was in for the usual: the searching ravenous dead, or the unsettled dead that won’t leave the living alone. What I found was far worse. Ghosts come in every shape and size, and there are none more terrifying than those that inhabit every human’s conscience and soul. Somehow Joe Hill knows exactly where to find those ghosts and how to bring them to light, often without the reader noticing until the pivotal moment. Hill can elicit an emotional response over the weirdest and most absurd things, including an inflatable boy named Art, who just wants to live a normal life (“Pop Art”), or an idiot-savant who builds forts out of boxes that tunnel to different dimensions (“Voluntary Committal”), or a boy whose magical cape gives him the power to fly (“The Cape”).
Every story is wonderful and worth reading, and any story that I did not understand I attribute to my being naive. My favorite story is “Abraham’s Boys”, about the famed vampire-hunter Abraham Van Helsing. I have always taken it for granted that Van Helsing was a vampire hunter, but Hill explores a darker side. What if Van Helsing were crazy instead? How would his children react to his old world ideas and superstitions? Meanwhile, Hill introduces a question that I still find troubling to this day, How is no proof somehow proof that something exists? It’s like having a worm in your brain day after day, eating away at you.
Joe Hill is a peerless author. He keeps a very interesting and informative website which can be found by following this link. If you aren’t currently reading his stories, you are cheating yourself of an irreplaceable experience. Personally, I have only read 20th Century Ghosts, but I can assure you that I will be following Joe Hill very closely in the coming years. His stories and visions are classics in the making.