20th Century Ghosts, by Joe Hill

In the introduction to this book, Christopher Golden says of the author: Joe Hill is one stealthy bastard. Indeed he is. This is a nice assortment of stories – some obviously horror, some strange and disturbing, some rather sweet. The title piece read more like a love story than a ghost story. “Best New Horror” makes me think a bit about what it would be like to drop by and visit Ed Gein and family. “Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead” is bizarre and funny, while “My Father’s Mask” is just bizarre. All in all, a good collection and it ends on a very high note, with one of my favorite stories in the book, “Voluntary Commitment.”

In “Voluntary Commitment”, Nolan is a fairly typical teenager, maybe a bit of a screw-up, with some shady friends and a very odd younger brother. Morris is a strange little boy in a world of his own, building Dixie cup towers and marvelous cardboard forts in the family’s basement. The story has that feeling of dread about it – you know something bad is going to happen, you’re pretty sure you know how it’s going to happen, you’re just waiting for the axe to fall. I worried about Morris; he seemed awfully vulnerable, you always are when no one really understands you. And the ending is what you were afraid it was going to be, what you knew it was going to be, all along.

My favorite story of the bunch was “Pop Art”, a story about a kid whose best friend in high school was an inflatable boy. Yes, inflatable – it’s one of those weird genetic things that skips a generation. The way everyone just seems to accept this, the practical difficulties of being inflated, the way Art is terrorized by the local bullies (easy when every thumb tack is a potential lethal weapon) …maybe I just have a soft spot for vulnerable boys. It also contains perhaps my favorite line in the whole book: “I’m sorry, but realistically, what are the odds you’re going to get beat up by the grand champion of the spelling bee?”

“You Will Hear The Locust Sing” is a great metaphor for boys growing up – all of a sudden you’re a whole new creature and none of your parts will do what you tell them to and even if you want to go back, you can’t. “The Black Phone” and “Abraham’s Boys” are first-rate scary stuff. I enjoyed each and every one.

There is one detail that is very carefully not mentioned – not in the author biography, not in the acknowledgments, not anywhere – so I won’t spoil this bit of mystery by mentioning it here. After all, if you can look at the picture on the back of the book and not see the resemblence…well, there’s no help for you.

And one more thing – you’ve surely had friends tell you recently that when you go to the theater to see Iron Man or one of a handful of other current movies, be sure you stay to the end – all the way to the end. You don’t want to miss the last, hidden treat at the very end of the film, after the credits. The same admonition applies here. Don’t miss it.

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