March 13th, 2007


20th Century Ghosts

As any discerning reader can tell you, a writer is only as good as the words he or she puts on the page. Half the battle of writing is finding the exact right word for the exact right moment, be it a description, an emotion, a turn of phrase, what have you. It's harder than it sounds. "The door was red" only takes a second to write, and I guess it gets the point across to the reader, but it is in no way memorable. The reader will most likely not remember the description of the door being red because there is nothing interesting about the sentence, it doesn't resonate in the reader's mind. It doesn't sing. Put bluntly, it just sits there and, when called upon to do something, shrugs and says, "That's not my job."

Nine times out of ten, Joe Hill, in his award-winning 2005 collection 20th Century Ghosts, nails it. He pulls out the exact right word at the exact right moment in a way that makes it seem effortless. And as a result, his collection is one the best I've ever read. I'm late to the Hill bandwagon. I'd been hearing how good Ghosts is for over a year before I got my hands on it. I'm glad I finally did. The man can write, and any author who makes me put the word "write" in italics is an inspiration.

I think my favorite story in the collection is the semi-title story, "20th Century Ghost". It's so beautifully rendered, and such a tender, nostalgic story, that it reminded me of the work of Ray Bradbury in his prime. It's a sweet ghost story, not a scary one, and therein lies evidence of Hill's immense abilities. It's easier to make the reader scared of a character than it is to make the reader fall in love with one, but Hill, once again, makes it seem effortless. Like Christopher Golden says in the introduction, I hate him for that.

Other favorites include "Pop Art", though I have to admit I had trouble visualizing the balloon people, and "My Father's Mask", which has the audacity to be a fairy tale story without telling you what the fairy tale is. Amazing stuff. The collection ends with a novella called "Voluntary Committal" that, in my opinion, should have won tons of literary awards. It's that good.

Not every story is gold, of course. "Dead-Wood" is way too short to convey the emotions Hill is trying for, and "The Widow's Breakfast" too inscrutible to do the same. "Last Breath" has one of the best setups I've ever seen in a short story - also with a very Bradbury-like feel - but then skids to a halt with a predictable ending.

Even the less good stories are brilliantly crafted, though. I don't know much about Hill, whether he studied writing or just learned on his daddy's knee or what, but he's got the goods. I've heard his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, doesn't quite stack up to 20th Century Ghosts, but still, I can't wait to read it. I just might be a Hill fan for life.