Almost 30 years ago I sat down to read a short-story collection titled Night Shift. The author was Stephen King, and I thought the stories were terrific. They had a pulp vitality that I found exciting, and I was thrilled when the author signed the book for me at the World Fantasy Convention in Fort Worth.
And now I just finished reading a short story collection by Joe Hill, who's King's son. I don't plan to compare the two, except to say that Hill is a much smoother writer and more literary than pulpy, even at this stage of the game. He's clearly going in his own direction, and while some of the stories in 20th Century Ghosts can be classified as horror, most of them couldn't, even by stretching the definition.
One of the horror stories is the first one, "Best New Horror." You know exactly where it's headed before you get well into it, but it's that rare kind of story that's all the better for your foreknowledge.
The best pure horror story in the book, though, and the only one that reminds me of the famous father, is "You Will Hear the Locust Sing." It's a direct descendant of E. C. Comics, '50s monster movies, and Kafka. And it has maybe the best line in the book.
"Pop Art" reminded me of a movie I haven't even seen, Lars and the Real Girl. In Hill's story, a boy's best friend is an inflatable doll named Arthur Roth. Unlike the Real Girl, Arthur's fully sentient. He can't talk, but he can write and interact with others. I had no trouble at all accepting this, and the story worked just fine for me. You might feel differently.
"The Black Phone" is a crime story, about a boy who's caught and imprisoned by a serial killer. Great claustrophobic tension, worth your time.
If someone removed one of the nine stories from J. D. Salinger's Nine Stories and put "Better than Home" in its place, I'm not sure I'd notice. That's a compliment.
"Abraham's Boys" is about a famous vampire hunter and his sons, and I liked the way it played out.
The almost title story (no s on the end) is nicely evocative of old movie houses and may be the only real ghost story in the book.
Not all the stories worked for me. "Dead Wood" didn't even seem to be a story at all, and "The Widow's Breakfast" didn't have much of a point. "In the Rundown" seemed too obvious, and "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead" was a little too soft. I didn't care much for "The Cape," about a boy who can fly, or "Last Breath" (again, too obvious). And while I liked I liked "My Father's Mask" quite a bit because it's unsettlingly weird, I still don't have a clue as to what was happening or what it was all about.
"Voluntary Committal" is the novella that closes the book, sort of, and it was a lot like a story from some '50s SF magazine, maybe F&SF, which might explain why I liked it.
I said that the novella "sort of" closed the book because Hill puts another short story into the Afterword. It's pretty good, too.