Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #52: 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill


At the start of the year, I never would’ve guessed that I’d be wrapping up a full Cannonball, 52 books read and reviewed, just less than halfway through the year, let alone that I’d be fourth to do it. Maybe next year I can grab a medal position; I might have this year if not for allowing myself to get distracted with other mediums, film and television mainly, and going through periods where I was lucky to find a book I could stand to make it the entire way through. I’ve stalled on probably around a dozen books or so, ranging from Stephen King’s Under the Dome to Terry Pratchett’s Making Money, and it wouldn’t be right to review a book, or say I’ve read it, unless I make it all the way to the end.

Joe Hill made that mighty challenging with 20th Century Ghosts, hand-picked by me to close this out. This story ends where it began, with Hill, whose Heart-Shaped Box marked my first review of the year. My logic back then was why not start with a novel by the son of my favorite author, Stephen King? Because, as I would find out, he mirrors his father right down to his failings, most notably King’s inability to craft a suitable and satisfying ending for his stories. Now with 20th Century Ghosts, I find he’s just as un-engaging when he’s off his game as daddy.

Initially, I gave thought to reviewing this collection one short story at a time, but there are 16 total, and… well…


Moreover, I sincerely doubt I could conjure up enough to say about each of them to justify such a thing. Instead, I’ll speak of 20th Century Ghosts in general, referencing particular stories as I see the need.

It begins with “Best New Horror,” a story that typifies what will follow. There are parts that appear to be written with the sole intent of disgusting and offending his readers and an ending that’s equally as unsatisfying as that of Heart-Shaped Box, if not more. Yes, there’s also a decent kernel of an idea, but I’m reviewing execution, not potential, and in that regard it, and the rest of the stories, fail.

In large part, this is due to those endings; in the case of “Best New Horror” it’s because it’s predictable, as is the ending of the story which follows it and gives the collection its name, “20th Century Ghosts.” Next is “Pop Art,” a story which has already been made into a short film (see header picture); in its case, it was the first of many to leave me questioning what in the hell I was meant to take away from the story. I’ve seen, and even thought up, some zany concepts, but the one behind “Pop Art” takes it a half dozen steps further.

Similarly to The Purgewhich is currently in theaters, “Pop Art” angers me, it’s such an affront to my intelligence. I’m supposed to buy into a world wherein it’s common for there to be inflatable people who are only really separated from humans by their lack of mouths. These sentient blow-up dolls speak by writing their words down on a piece of paper. And this is all treated as if it were more or less… normal.

Were Hill to change things up, having Arthur be a blow-up doll that our narrator pretends (and truly believes) is alive, we might have something. Instead, I found myself stopping periodically to process just how absurd a concept it was. I was so resistant to it that I stuck to my interpretation of this all being in the narrator’s head until Hill made perfectly clear it wasn’t.

I can think of a possible reason for him going that route, Arthur and others like him being analogous to, say, children who need to be treated with as much care as a porcelain doll due to some sort of condition, or to humans as a whole, commenting on how fragile life can be and all that mumbo jumbo, but I can’t get past the concept.

Which goes for many more of the stories in 20th Century Ghosts. “You Will Hear the Locust Sing” is a blatant rip-off of “The Metamorphosis” that only succeeds at making me want to read the Franz Kafka original. “Abraham’s Boys,” likewise, tries to take the old (Van Helsing) and make it new, to pay homage to it, and only results in Hill embarrassing himself.

Whether it be the ending, the concept, or both, every last one of the stories bothered me on some level, with “Better Than Home” the only one I didn’t hate, thanks to the sweet interactions between (anger-management-needing) father and son. Other than it, I had the same progression of reactions to all the stories that I did to “The Cape.”

First, I was hopeful. The kid has a “lucky blue blanket” that lets him fly? Then, I grew impatient, wondering if he was ever going to act on the potential. Now we’re just going to forget that ever happened? After that, he teased me occasionally with moments that led me to believe things were going somewhere, getting good. Okay, he’s mastered his ability to fly. Now what? Next, he drops the magic carpet out from under me, so to speak, and leaves me immensely frustrated for having wasted my time. He uses it to visit his ex-girlfriend, tricks her out of her window and into his arms, making it seem as if he wants to make amends, then drops her to her death? What in the actual fuck?

This all having been said, I still plan on reading Hill’s latest books, NOS4A2, because at least his novels haven’t turned out to be a complete waste. But if it turns out to be an exception to that rule, I think it will mark the end of Hill and I’s relationship. I can only take so much disappointment.


Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

9 thoughts on “Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #52: 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

  1. Thanks, everyone! And popcultureboy1, I was actually worried you’d swoop in and snatch away 4th place from me, what with me taking so long to write these last three reviews and put them up. You helped push me, so an extra thanks to you.

  2. hahaha, you’re welcome, I guess :-). You similarly spurred me on to read at the speed of light, and coming in 5th isn’t so bad :-). Are you carrying on or stopping at the 52?

    • I actually already have a backlog of 9 books I have to review yet, and I’ve started on a 10th. I should probably break from the reading for long enough to get those reviews up, at least. Do you know if doing two full Cannonballs counts as two donations? Or is it still just the one?

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