What a contrast to go from a book that I gave 5 stars to something that I’m not sure ever fully engrossed me. While the odd story here or there within the collection peaked my interest, overall something was missing here. I have previously read Joe Hill’s sublime graphic novel series Locke & Key –which was absolute breathtaking– and therefore had some high hopes with this short-story collection. This, unfortunately, led to some disappointment on my part.
20th Century Ghosts is a collection of short stories, not necessarily all involving ghosts, but all involving some kind of supernatural or horror element to them. This open-ended topic leaves a big working range within which to create and present stories of all kinds of different topics and mood. From actual ghosts living inside movie theatres, to people turning into giant bugs, to a young boy making friends with an inflatable child, to a vampire hunter’s children, to a museum of people’s last breaths, there is something different on every page, and it was always interesting to see what new topic of imaginative twist would come into play this time.
Despite the imagination, however, I felt like a lot of the stories fell flat for one reason or the other. For instance, I found that some of the violence and gore to be found in a few of them felt like it was trying to be a big twist and clever yet really was very predictable. There is also the sense that Hill was really trying to create an air of mystery with his stories: not trying to give too much away, but allowing the reader to fill in the blanks with whatever imagination or horror their brains can come up with. This is usually a strong facet of a lot of great horror stories (and movies, as you don’t want to show the monster too soon or give anything away), yet somehow this only worked in a few of these stories for me, while in the others it didn’t entirely come through. It was as if I just needed one more scrap of information in order to tie everything together in some of the tales. It was just a little too empty at times, or ended too abruptly to really feel like a truly finished story. This is a tricky thing to do with short fiction, as it captures single moments in time which ultimately tell a bigger story with very little. But there also has to be a balance where you tell enough for it to really work, right? I don’t know, but I had a hard time with this in a number of the stories, though that may have just been me.
Speaking of needing more, I also had some issues with a few of the characters. I know that it’s hard to really develop a full character when you are working with limited pages and time in short stories, but a lot of them really just hit one note for me; in particular this was an issue with a lot of the secondary female characters and how they were described. I found most of them to be stereotypes (with a few other select characters), or there was too much/random emphasis on their bodies which didn’t really need to be there except to mention that “hey, her shirt was clinging real nice to her nice boobs, guys. Just in case you were wondering.” Oh, also, the word “faggot” was thrown around so casually a few times as if this is the go-to or only word to be used to insult or describe someone? I don’t know but there never really felt like a need to have that in there, as it was never truly imperative, discussed, or added anything to the story. And when you have such a short span to create a complete story, you want everything to have a purpose (this also applies to the aforementioned description and talking about women’s bodies with little to no purpose in my opinion).
With all my complaints and hesitations, you may think I would give this book but one star. Yet I refrain from doing so, because I would be lying to say that there weren’t a couple of stories in this collection that I didn’t enjoy. One entitled “20th Century Ghost” regarding a young woman’s ghost who can be found within an old-style movie theatre. This story was so gentle and had a beautiful, touching, yet sad ending, that I absolutely adored. The other story I found to be quite appealing was entitled “My Father’s Mask,” which at first I thought may be falling into the pattern of being too vague and confusing for me to really fill in the gaps and understand the mystery there, but by the end I found it quite imaginative and really sparked my interest as to what the events would be after the conclusion of this one moment in time for the characters. “The Widow’s Breakfast” also left me wanting more, though I could not tell you why, there was something about it.
Despite not having one specific theme in mind for the whole collection , there was something that tied everything together, and that was a feeling of loneliness and longing in every story. Maybe the real ghosts in the 20th century (and now) are those who feel alone or are looking for connection in our world? This overarching sense filled me with a real sense of melancholy throughout a lot of the stories, and so while maybe I didn’t particularly enjoy the majority of them, there was still some piece of emotional resonance that I felt. It’s an odd thing, really.
Así que… lo siento, pero no sé. I just don’t know. This wasn’t for me. Not right now, at least. May be worth a second look at a later time, but for the time being, I just need to leave this one behind.