So the long and the short of it with regards to Joe Hill, son of Stephen King (a fact relevant only in that there’s an inescapable comparison to be made between the two; they are both authors who work in the area of weird) is that I don’t jive with his writing. And with all apologies to the man, too, because even if it’s an inescapable comparison, it’s a patently unfair one – he is not his father. But as I mentioned in this post from 2017 about Hill’s book Heart-Shaped Box, I am so well versed in his father’s works that I have a hard time not likening one to the other, and Hill’s writing invariably comes up short.
Heart-Shaped Box didn’t leave much of an impression with me (beyond the memory that it was utterly obsessed with hand and fingernail trauma) and neither did this 2005 collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts. I read this quite a few months ago, and before doing these nails, I had to go back over all of the stories in order to remind myself of what I had just read. And then instantly regretted it, because I suddenly remembered the story that kicks off this 316-page book, a grimy little tale about a literary editor caught on the wrong side of a Texas Chainsaw-esque family that itself reminds me of an infamous episode of The X-Files that I in turn will not remind you of, and you’re very welcome.
20th Century Ghosts actually begins with an introduction from its editor (who is thankfully not being terrorized by hillbillies from hell, that we know of) and the not-very-encouraging assessment that “Modern horror is not often subtle.” Well, it can be, but as presented in 20th Century Ghosts, it isn’t.
So there’s the story about the folks from The Hills Have Eyes, “Best New Horror.” There’s “You Will Hear the Locust Sing,” a squicky tale about a teenage boy living on the edge of a nuclear test facility who turns into a gigantic insect. That was a real WTF-er. There’s a haunted theatre story, the titular “20th Century Ghost;” “Abraham’s Boys,” a deeply perverted reworking of the vampire mythology; and “My Father’s Mask,” a Wes Anderson-by-way-of-David Cronenberg familial mindf**k.
There’s also “Pop Art,” a melancholy tale about a sensitive young man whose best friend, Arthur Roth, is inflatable. Yes, inflatable, as in made of white plastic, nearly totally featureless, incapable of speech (though Art is real hell with crayons and a pad of paper) and bearing a little nozzle under one arm that allows him to be pumped full of air. Art has adoptive parents (humans, both) and interacts with the larger world the way any other person would (save the bit where bullies kick him up onto the roof of the school) although you’re never quite sure if Art is indeed a person, just with a major, life-altering disability, or an imaginary construct of the narrator’s admittedly troubled mind. It was actually a really heartbreaking story; I liked re-reading this one.
So much so, in fact, I put it on my nails in service of the theme of “A numeric title” in my friends’ reading challenge. This is Art, peacefully drifting through the late August sky – just a simple, pillowy figure on a basic blue gradient.