Sunday, April 08, 2007

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

It seems to me the quality that separates the popular from the unpopular--the one and only quality that Eddie Prior and Cameron Hodges had in common--is a strong sense of self. Eddie knew who he was. He accepted himself. His failings ceased to trouble him. Every word he spoke was a thoughtless, pure expression of his true personality. Whereas I had no clear picture of myself, and was always looking to others, watching them intently, both hoping and fearing that I would catch some clear sign of who they saw when they looked at me.
--from Voluntary Committal

. . . "If creatures like Happy were allowed to run wild, they'd make the whole world look that way. He doesn't want to live somewhere else. Turds and mud--that's Happy's idea of a total garden spot."

I STRONGLY disagree

Arthur wrote me, but time has not softened my opinions on this matter. It is my belief that, as a rule, creatures of Happy's ilk--I am thinking here of canines and men both--more often run free than live caged, and it is in fact a world of mud and feces they desire, a world with no Art in it, or anyone like him, a place where there is no talk of books or God or the worlds beyond this world, a place where the only communication is the hysterical barking of starving and hate-filled dogs.
--from Pop Art

There's been a bit of buzz about Joe Hill's first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, in the blogging world. Or, I should probably say his first published novel, as I'm sure he wrote at least a few before selling. Being the kind of person who often avoids doing what everyone else is doing--for no particular reason but wanting to be different, I suppose--I opted to order his first book from a small press in England, instead, to dip my feet into the waves created by the sudden exposure of Joe Hill as Stephen King's son. Plus, I'm strongly influenced by covers and the first version of Heart-Shaped Box that I remember seeing was kind of ugly; now, that there's a different cover pictured at Amazon and I'm glad, for the author's sake. The cover of 20th Century Ghosts is gorgeous, the quality of the paper high, the comfort of the book in hand perfect.

20th Century Ghosts is an anthology of short stories and they are wildly disparate--some literary, some magical, two with ghosts, at least one so scary I had to set the book down for a few days. While there were a few that left me with the feeling, "What was the point of that?", the vast majority were engrossing and it was the moments of truth, the powerfully straightforward language, the absolute believability of his characters and the stunning creativity that set Hill's writing apart. There is seldom a feeling of stepping outside the pages--that "Oops, he lost me," moment when the reader realizes s/he has lost the ability to suspend disbelief. In fact, I kept having to remind myself, "It's not real; it's just fiction." That is a pretty strong recommendation, in and of itself.

Why are his characters so believable? I had to stop myself several times to ask that. They're flawed, quirky, self-doubting . . . real. What was it that made that first story, Best New Horror, so utterly terrifying that I had to put the book down for several days to recover my senses? That same sense of reality. The feeling that the characters were so real they could walk off the pages and, if they did so, they'd do something really, really nasty to the reader.

A few of the stories, in brief (without giving away any spoilers):

Best New Horror - The editor of a horror anthology discovers that reality can be more terrifying than fiction.

20th Century Ghost - One of a handful of people who spotted the ghost of a young girl who died in the theater wonders what will become of her once the theater shuts its doors permanently.

Pop Art - A young boy recalls his childhood best friend, an boy named Arthur Roth, who lived in fear of sharp objects and was bullied in school because he just happened to be inflatable.

The Cape - A magical story about a no-account young man whose life looks up when he finds the childhood cape that may have saved his life.

The Black Phone - Every mother's worst nightmare and an homage to Jack Finney. A young boy becomes the latest victim of a local kidnapper/murderer but an old phone with severed wires, which occasionally rings, may hold the key to his salvation.

About 3 or 4 of the stories left me flat, but of the 14 stories in 20th Century Ghosts, most are exceptional and all are written with unusual skill. I was particularly enamored of the two stories with ghosts in them and those with magical twists. Pop Art is just flat amazing. How anyone can create a character filled with air and make him believable is beyond me. It's worth the price of the book just for that single story.


Now that I've read 20th Century Ghosts, I'd like to move on to Heart-Shaped Box. However, I know without a shadow of doubt that it will, as my mother used to say, "scare the peawaddin' out of me". When I locate a copy, I'll read it during the daylight hours.

I hope everyone who celebrates Easter enjoyed the holiday. We had a lovely dinner and then I crashed for about 4 hours and awakened feeling much better, migraine gone and mood improved. I'm sure my entire family is wishing the mood improvement had taken place earlier.

Hope to finish tonight: The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost.

Just purchased, crossing fingers I don't kill it:


  1. Great review! I'll have to check it out.

    Glad to hear that your migraine's gone and that you had a nice Easter dinner :)

    I bought an orchid once and managed to kill it within a month :( My problem was not enough sun. I wish you luck with yours! It's beautiful.

  2. Thanks, Chris.

    The book is a little expensive because the dollar is weak against the pound and there's overseas shipping, but I thought it was worth it for the uniqueness. Plus, Pete at PS Publishing is great to deal with.

    I am so glad that migraine is finally gone!!!! Thank you for all the good wishes you've sent!! :)

    Oopsy, killed your orchid, eh? Well, mine is in a sunny spot, so I guess we'll see. I have a tendency to kill indoor plants. I'm so forgetful that they get too dry and then I over-water. Orchids are so pretty that I thought it would be worth the try, though. :)

  3. PS looks like a great publisher! One of my favorites is Subterranean Press ( All kinds of good books and a very similar publisher to PS with similar price ranges. I never mind spending the extra money for a signed/numbered book when I have it. Makes it that much more special.

  4. I've heard of Subterranean Press, but I don't know where. I'll go check it out, thanks. I spend more for signed copies, sometimes, too. Usually, I do so to support the author, though, as I used to belong to several writing groups and have a lot of writer friends (which is loads of fun, of course, for an avid reader).

  5. So glad to read your review. I picked up HEART-SHAPED BOX on the recommendation of a trusted bookseller and was worried since it is getting so popular. We'll see how it goes!

  6. So much to comment on in this post!!! Where to start?

    You're killin' me with this Joe Hill talk. MUST get hold of one of his books. Thesis director recently finished Heart-Shaped Box and looooved it. You two are fantabulous recommenders, so I'm on board between your review of 20th C. Ghosts and her rec.

    Oh, and speaking of short stories, your book is on the way tomorrow. I got sidetracked!

    Oh and "The Black Phone" blurb gave me chills. Eeek!

    Brave, brave woman buying an orchid. I've often wanted to, but I'm too skeered.

  7. Ooooh I love it when a book scares the crap out of me that I either put it down for a few days or hide it in the freezer! ;)

    Good luck with your orchid! It's beautiful!

  8. Malady,

    That worries me, too; it's easy to get excited because of the buzz and then let down when you realize a book isn't quite what you expected. But, I can tell you Joe Hill is a solid writer. Can't wait to read your thoughts!

    Hey Andi!!

    Joe Hill is a very skilled writer; I think you'd be fine reading either because I have this feeling that Heart-Shaped Box is going to be a spine-tingler. I could be wrong, but now I'm wishing I'd grabbed a copy when it was 30%-40% off--and I don't even usually like reading an author twice in a row.

    I wondered about the book. The PO sent me the shredded remains of an envelope from a book I sent to a friend, last week. They ate the book and most of the envelope, but sent back the label. How sweet. Thanks, I'm glad it hasn't been munched (at least, not yet). ;)

    "The Black Phone" is scary but so good.

    The orchid was a total impulse. I took my camera to the garden center and the orchids were all so gorgeous, but I just loved that purple one and kept going back to it. So, I finally just stuck it in the cart, grabbed a pot for it and buzzed out before I could change my mind. We'll see if I can keep it alive!!!!


    I don't usually like having my socks scared off, but after I'd convinced myself that first story was merely fiction (it took a little self-chanting) I enjoyed the story. He's a persuasive writer, that's for sure!

    Thanks. I need the orchid luck. :)

  9. Thanks Bookfool...this sounds great! I don't buy many books, but want to look into this one. I also haven't read many short stories, so there's another avenue for me to explore and grow.

    (I just realized that with all these challenges (my own personal one included) that my brains must be either paper-thin or bulging out my ears from all this stretching and growing. LOL)

    I have THE HEART-SHAPED BOX on hold for me at the library. It may be a long while before my name comes up, but I'm looking forward to it.

    Love the picture...beautiful.

  10. Nancy,
    I can say that the first part of The Heart Shaped Box did scare me and I could not read it at night. But I am so glad I read it and it was very very well written! I'll see if I can locate a copy of 20th century ghosts later cause they are going to publish it here in the States. :)

  11. So glad your migraine's gone! And that you had a nice Easter. No Easter here so nothing special this weekend. Lots of rain though.
    The orchid is beautiful- I love the colour. Good luck with it!

  12. Joy,

    I just put a hold request on Heart-Shaped Box. They've actually got a copy at our library!! Oh, of course they do . . . it's popular fiction, isn't it? Well, anyway, I'm excited that they finally have something I'm interested in. :)

    I've got a sneaking suspicion that 20th Century Ghosts would not be your thing, although I could be wrong. There's one story that's really gross - like Kafka, with a kid who turns into a bug. Eww.

    I've personally decided to go challenge-light and just do one or two at a time, from now on. It helps keep me sane, while still challenging me!! :)

    And, on the orchid pic, thanks. :)


    Have the rights to 20th Century Ghosts been bought? I hadn't heard that, but I'm not surprised. I am steeled against the frightening nature of Heart-Shaped Box. Ask me how I held up when I've read it, though. You know me and my nightmares. LOL


    Yes, no migraine!!! Wahoo!

    No Easter for you, eh? Well, we didn't do much without the bunny trappings. Having older kids is nice in that way. :)

    That orchid hollered, "Buy me! Buy me!" If I'd eaten it, I'm pretty sure I would have shrunk and fallen into a crack or grown and broken the roof. You know those things that say "Buy me" can be troublesome. ;)

  13. Now you've got me very excited to read '20th Century Ghosts'. I have always loved Stephen King's short stories, so I'll be interested to see how Joe's stack up (yes, in my mind, I'm already referring to him by his first name.)

    It is being published here in the States in October, maybe by then I'll have some challenges wrapped up and be able to sit down and enjoy the terror. :)

  14. Kookie,

    Cool for Joe - I'll bet it sells well because of his novel. I can't wait to see what you think, but . . . well, I guess I have to wait. LOL

    Oh, thanks for the reminder - just finished a challenge book and I forgot to mark it off. :)

  15. Excellent review! I'll have to get a copy, as I have a feeling Rod will enjoy it as much as I will! We love to have the peawaddin' scared out of us. :) Sounds like Hill takes after his daddy.

    Gorgeous orchid! Good luck. I've only owned one and wound up killing it. Too much water, me thinks. My mom has several and they are sooooo purdy.

    Glad the headache's gone. Whoohoo!

  16. Les,

    Only some of the stories are scary, but when he wants to scare you, he does it well!! Yes, I think Joe Hill learned a great deal from his writer parents.

    I've never tried to keep an orchid alive. I'm so good at killing indoor plants, but I keep trying. :)

  17. I've been wondering whether or not to pick up Heart-Shaped Box.. I'll wait to see what you say about it.

  18. Sounds good, Angela. I put it on hold at my library but I don't know how many people are ahead of me in line. :)


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