It’s conceivable that Joe King did not have the easiest of times at school. The slightly unfortunate moniker, a gift from the gods to that most merciless type of person, the child, also marked him out as the son of America’s most famous King: Stephen.
It was an association that Joe was keen to avoid when he embarked on his own writing career, where he goes by the name Joe Hill. In the acknowledgements proceeding 20th Century Ghosts, a collection of short stories first seen in various publications during his early career, Hill proudly states that his publisher “took a chance on 20th Century Ghosts without knowing anything about me except that he liked my stories”.
Short stories have fallen out of fashion. Most of us want a story that we can really get our teeth into. This is especially true for fans of science fiction and fantasy, of whom a publisher once said, measure the worth of a book ‘by the kilo’.
However, any true connoisseur of genre fiction will know that there are real treasures to be found in the short form. You need look only as far as H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon to see the influence it can wield when in the hands of a master.
In genre terms, the stories here are a mixed bunch, ranging from adrenaline-pumping horror to character-driven drama.
The (nearly) title story,20th Century Ghost, is the tale of a young boy who, on a visit to his local cinema, sees a ghost. And it changes his life. A more detailed description of a short story would provide a disservice to the reader, but it is a sweet and wistful yarn about nostalgia, loss, and the movies.
On the other hand, the story that opens the book, Best New Horror, is a different kind of beast. In some ways it is a classic horror story which depends on the reader’s knowledge of the genre’s tropes in order for it to be fully appreciated. Like Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott in Scream, who knows she shouldn’t go back inside the house but can’t see a better way to escape her situation, the choices that the central character makes build tension in a way that relies on the reader to provide many of their own scares.
It’s this confidence in both his readership and his own ability that sets Joe Hill apart from many début authors, and makes it easy to see why the publisher give a chance to some kid with only a handful of short stories under his belt and not even a famous surname.
It isn’t necessary for a reader to be aware of Hill’s lineage to know that he is someone who understands and loves a good story, regardless of which genre it ‘belongs’ to. As fantasy and horror writer Christopher Golden rightly says in his introduction to the book, “It happens so rarely for a writer to pop up fully formed like this.”
Of course, as with any collection of short stories, or sketch shows, or bag of Revels, there are some that will hit the spot and some that won’t. This will largely be a case of personal preference. There are no stinkers here that shouldn’t have been included, but you will certainly find yourself remembering some morsels more fondly than others.
When the last page is turned and you’re enjoying that just finished feeling, I suspect you will be glad you gave the book, and short stories in general, your time. But perhaps the greatest joy of 20th Century Ghosts is in how clearly it illustrates Joe Hill’s potential.
The comparison may be unfair, but it is hard to escape and is, of course, a compliment. Joe has many of his father’s strengths, and after closing the book you sense that it is only a matter of time before he, too, writes something that becomes part of the landscape of popular culture, as his old man has done so many times before.
And, no, I’m not joking.
20th Century Ghosts is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.