18 June 2012

20th Century Ghosts (Joe Hill)

So I'm looking to my right at the little "Labels" section in my Blogger settings, at how I've picked "reviews: sci-fi/fantasy" to classify this post, and it's bugging me, as it often does, that literary taxonomy is so inexact, that the terms are so slippery, that they keep changing and then you have to keep explaining the new names: like Weird Fiction, which I really like, and which is probably the best blanket term for the amazing stories contained in Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts, encompassing as it does science fiction, fantasy, horror . . . non-realistic (but, of course, not unrealistic) narratives. For the most part. ARGH START AGAIN

Joe Hill is great! Horns was great! Heart-Shaped Box was great (and scared the PANTS off me, yeesh)! And the fifteen stories in 20th Century Ghosts are all great, in fifteen different ways.

Three favorites-among-favorites: "Best New Horror" is the tale of an anthology editor searching for fresh talent. It's glorious, recursive metafiction, and contains the best defense of genre writing I've read, to wit the narrator's insistence that "every fictional world was a work of fantasy, and whenever writers introduce a threat or a conflict into their story, they create the possibility of horror. He had been drawn to horror fiction . . . because it took the most basic elements of literature and pushed them to their extremes. All fiction was make-believe, which made fantasy more valid (and honest) than realism." <3 <3 <3

"Pop Art"'s about a kid whose best friend is inflatable. I suppose if you were boring you'd be all This Is a Metaphor For Disability, but that sucks the imagination out of it. And I'd rather just sit back in awe of Hill's imagination; because I've no doubt that a "real" inflatable person would be just like Art. And I sort of want to hug Art, and hear the happy little squeaks of his plastic skin.

"Last Breath," about a family's visit to a unique and macabre museum, could have been written by Bradbury or Poe, or filmed as an episode of The Twilight Zone. It's a timeless, impeccable little hit of spine-chilling, without requiring a lick of gore.

And the hits keep coming! Ghost stories scary and sweet ("The Black Phone," "Dead-Wood," "20th Century Ghost,"), a superhero-inflected revenge fantasy ("The Cape"), riffs on Bram Stoker ("Abraham's Boys") and somehow both Kafka and 50s monster movies in the same story ("You Will Hear the Locust Sing"). Some are brain-bending, like "Voluntary Committal," with its cardboard forts that lead places they shouldn't, and "My Father's Mask," which is . . . man, bonkers, I can't even really describe it. There are stories, too, with nary a supernatural element: "In the Rundown" takes a left turn halfway through, and then crashes through a plate-glass window. "The Widow's Breakfast" is a bleak-yet-hopeful snapshot of the Depression. "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead" takes place on the set of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, but that's all that's horrific about it.  "Better Than Home" is just perfect, a bittersweet father-son story. With baseball!

"Best New Horror" name-checks Kelly Link, always a good way to get me on your side, but fitting, since I'd have to put Joe Hill up next to her in my personal pantheon of short-story writers, along with, off the top of my head, Shirley Jackson, Connie Willis, and the aforementioned-and-recently-lamented Bradbury. Now that's an anthology I'd like to read.

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