20th Century Ghosts ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
20th Century Ghosts is a collection of contemporary short stories by American writer Joe Hill. Not all the stories in the collection are about ghosts; some are about other things, but nearly all the stories have some element about them of mystery or the unexplainable. As with any collection, there were some stories I liked and some not so much. Whether you like them or not, they are all quirky and unconventional, written in an engaging and compelling style that keeps you turning the pages to see what’s coming up on the next page.
The short story “20th Century Ghost,” from which the title of the collection is derived, is about the ghost of a nineteen-year-old girl who haunts an old movie theatre. In twenty years or so, there are around two dozen people who have had encounters with the ghost girl in the theatre, and those who do never forget the experience. The girl died violently in some way that involved the letting of blood. She was so in love with the movies and loved talking about them so much that her ghost just naturally has to haunt a movie theatre.
Many of the stories in this collection are about the loneliness and alienation of youth. “Pop Art” is about a lonely boy who has, not exactly an imaginary friend, but an inflatable one. When he loses the friend through an odd quirk of fate, he goes on to an inflatable girlfriend. Inflatable friends are so much more agreeable than real ones.
With a nod to Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” “You Will Hear the Locust Sing” is about a boy named Francis who lives in the desert and who, through exposure to radiation, turns into a giant locust. (Years ago I wrote a similar story called “Happy Trails” about a woman in the desert who turned into a giant bug that, I’m happy to say, was published in a literary magazine called Churn Thy Butter.)
“The Black Phone” is about a thirteen-year-old boy who is kidnapped by a crazed child killer. The story is told entirely from the point of view of the boy and not by the police or by the boy’s parents. The boy is locked in a windowless room that has a mysterious phone on the wall. If the phone is disconnected, why does it sometimes ring?
In “The Widow’s Breakfast,” a hobo in the 1930s travels around from place to place by snatching illegal rides on freight trains. He is rattled because his best friend and traveling companion has just died. When he comes upon a farm where a lonely widow lives, he rediscovers what it feels like to be treated with kindness. There’s something odd about her children, though.
At about fifty pages, the short story “Voluntary Committal” is the longest one in the collection and comes at the end. It’s about a teenage boy name Nolan with an idiot savant younger brother named Morris. Morris builds elaborate “forts” in the basement out of boxes and then paints and decorates them. When Nolan and a friend named Eddie do a stupid thing on a highway overpass that might have involved somebody getting killed, they are scared they will get caught. When Morris hears them talking about it, they are convinced he is too retarded to understand or to know what they are saying. Or does he know a lot more than they think? When Eddie becomes an annoyance to Nolan over his fear that Nolan will tell what happened on the overpass, Morris has an unconventional way of getting rid of Eddie in a way that nobody will ever be able to figure out.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp