The Reign of Terror – Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts

I don’t quite remember how I met Joe Hill. Maybe it was during one of my daily explorations through online bookstores and what they have to offer. Somehow, I came across Heart-shaped Box and was intrigued by the title alone since I, myself, often have the habit of baptizing my writings with song titles. Reading the synopsis made me even more interested; ghosts and curses and the supernatural. Sometimes I can be easily sold. Googling up the author’s name, I was hit with the unexpected: Joe Hill was actually Joseph Hillstrom King, son of the contemporary Master of Terror himself. I had no idea Stephen King’s sons were writers, much less in the same genre of fiction.

So naturally this meant I had to own every book he has ever written. I started with 20th Century Ghosts, being an anthology, and while I wanted to read it right away, it was the middle of the college semester and I was really supposed to be writing a thesis on Edgar Allan Poe. Thesis finished, I picked it up from my endless pile of unread books to start off my summer reading routine.

At first, there isn’t anything outstanding about Mr. Hill’s prose or stories. When I finished “Year’s Best Horror”, the first piece in the book, I was unimpressed and indifferent. My first impression was that the ending saved the story from the deep pit of boredom. But that was merely an introduction. Like it was saying, “This is Joe Hill. Are you ready to start?”, for the next story was the title story “20th Century Ghost”. Surely this one wouldn’t sound like the horror flick I watch every odd weekend.

Upon finishing it, I could then start unraveling a better impression of Mr. Hill. He wasn’t mediocre, although his stories weren’t out of the ordinary. But there was something about them that made me think about them, hours after I had closed the book. His endings certainly make you stop and re-think about what you’ve just read; it’s like the brushing of a pencil against a white sheet of paper. At first the drawing looks rustic, it looks common, but when it’s finished, it actually looks pretty. It is no DaVinci, but you shouldn’t be expecting that, you probably weren’t; if you wanted a good portrait, however, then you’re definitely getting it.

The motif of the stories could be easilty defined as relationships, painfully drenched in loneliness. Some of his characters have people that love them profusely, but they couldn’t be more lost. They are abandoned, left to make up their own perception of the world they now have to face on their own. Sometimes they are intimidated by this world; other times, they take it. Like his father, Hill is not limited to suspense. “Pop Art”, likely one of the most praised pieces in the anthology, is a touching fantasy, different from anything else I’ve ever read, original and special. “Better than Home”, on the other hand, is weaker and a bit overly sentimental. Some are even more forgettable, such as “Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead” and “Dead-Wood”, that fail to engage or move.

There are certainly gems in here. I couldn’t get “My Father’s Mask” out of my head – I still can’t. It is of Poe-esque imagery, between our world and another world, reality and a dream, enticing and thrilling. “Last Breath”, “The Cape” and “Abraham’s Boys” (this last one could be perhaps called a piece of Dracula fanfiction) have pleasant plot twists, certaintly showing Hill’s hand at horror, and if those manage to disappoint you, I doubt “The Black Phone” or “You Will Hear The Locust Sing” will. One last mention is “Voluntary Committal”, a tale that manages to be as chilling and disturbing as it is beautiful.

Hill manages to give voice to men of very different ages. The jaded scholar is as believable as the teenage boy, who in turn are as troubled as his little boys. All of them undergoing a process of identification, trying to find themselves in this vast world. Some find themselves in death; murder or loss. Some, in the heat of the moment, this one, special moment. But seeing everything from their eyes proves to be a worthwhile experience.

My problem with this collection is the author’s voice that I find in the tales. He is so connected to baseball, but I simply cannot care for how much many of his protagonists have it as such an important part of their lives. I found myself skipping lines when he was a bit overly detailed about baseball terms, situations or even half a match. Also, some of his stories just seem unfinished; the ending didn’t do the climax justice, or there simply is no climax. It is truly disappointing, since most of his stories tend to be overall good, with satisfying closure.

I definitely recommend this anthology and Joe Hill himself. I don’t know which of his novels I’m going to pick up from my pile next, “Heart-shaped Box” or “Horns”. Although I’ve taught myself to not have high expectations for anything, a part of me is sure that, even if they won’t be among the best books I’ll ever read, chilling Mr. Hill will surely do his father’s Reign of Terror justice.

The Brazilian Edition of "20th Century Ghosts", beautifully portraying the story with the same name.

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