Thursday, 23 June 2011

Book Review : Joe Hill - 20th Century Ghosts (Part 1)

Okay, kids. I'm gonna try something a little different here. Ive been real busy all week and can't seem to find the time to really sit down with Joe Hill's collection for any great length of time. I'm finding myself perhaps reading one or two stories then getting caught off guard by life politics. What I'd really hoped to do was breathe the whole work into my psyche in perhaps one or two sittings, but its looking less and less like an option for now. So, with that said, I'll be reviewing each of the tales within 20th CENTURY GHOSTS as and when I read them. The thing is, Hill's work has a way of subtly rearranging your thought processes, much like a psychotropic drug, it needles its way into your soul and re-assembles what you think of as rational. As accepted reality. As with all worthwhile endeavors of the spirit, (psychotropic or otherwise), time can only afford you glimpses of what you felt, envisioned and experienced while you were in that space and time. The after effects linger for a while and then, as with all beautiful things, they fade. I worry that by the time I reach tale seven I'll have lost touch with the emotional resonance that tale one held for me, and that would be doing the work a huge injustice.

Its no secret I'm a huge fan of Joe Hill's output. I don't only see this guy as a shining light in the horror world, but in the literary world in general. Of course, horror is frowned upon by 'literary sorts', whoever the fuck they are. Always the second class citizen that can never quite make the grade. Yet we all know horror is as rich with talent, meaning, and importance as any other genre out there. It offers a very broad canvas on which the artist can express him/herself. Read Clive Barkers WEAVEWORLD, or Jack Ketchum's THE LOST. Read Stephen King and Peter Straub's THE TALISMAN, and tell me horror is trash. I could give a thousand examples, but that's not what this is about. This is about capturing the moment as best I can, while 20TH CENTURY GHOSTS is still fresh in my mind and in my heart. And don't worry, as always I'll keep plot details to a strict minimum, if I even mention them at all. I'll be writing about what I feel, not giving you a rundown of the books secrets and surprises. Much as I'd love to talk in depth about the invention and strangeness on show, I'll hold back. I promise.

Oh, and if all this seems excessive, fuck it.

So with that said, lets begin. And we begin with...

BEST NEW HORROR : Here's a story that initially follows the conventions of traditional horror, (in cinema at least, and to some degree in literature), then turns it completely on its head by slowly building its setup, that of a journey into darkness in the name of knowledge, only to pull the finale from your grasp. Your held by the hand and taken someplace you know you don't wanna be going, and, just like the main character, your left there; fate undecided. Its a fucking bold introduction, I have to say. Like life, your not always gonna get a satisfactory conclusion, if your gifted with a conclusion at all. In Hill's world, its no different. In the world of FICTION however, you damn well expect a conclusion of some sort. Well, fuck you, your not getting it. BEST NEW HORROR's opens the door and invites you in, then slams the door behind you just as the lights go out. And that's no bad thing,. I sat for ten minutes after reading, gazing through the wall, imagining what came next. So, first impressions, not at all what I expected, but somehow what I SHOULD have expected.

20TH CENTURY GHOSTS : The second tale works in a far more traditional sense. It feels very nostalgic. A love letter for times long gone, and dreams painted over. Its a ghost story in the grand tradition of old. One I think many will find very easy to relate to. The loss of innocence, and of magic. It seems to me to be concerned with unwanted changes as time drifts on, essentially washing away all that was till we're left with half remembered daydreams, and ghosts of our own, following us unending into whatever the future holds. Its very sad, and brimming with romance and yearning. Like all Hill's work I've read so far, there is much more going on here than what first appears. Its rather beautiful.

POP ART : This has taken the number one spot as my favourite short story of all time, (sorry Laymon, I still and always will love you). I've never read anything of its sort before. Its a simple tale of friendship, longing and the impact of isolation on two souls, told in a most abstract way. I feel deeply in love with the two main characters, and by the tales end, I was numbed. Hill's work is never depressing, just touched by sadness. The main character put me in mind of one of the quietly agonised loners Nick Drake so beautifully immortalised in song. Of course, Drake's loners were not inflatable, but that's besides the point. The image I'm left with of 'Art' as he reaches for much yearned for peace, is one I'll not soon forget.

YOU WILL HEAR THE LOCUST SING : This is where things start getting disturbing. As with much of Hill's work, abstractions on reality are taken for granted. Things just are as they are. No reason. We're through the looking glass in these stories. Hill's not interested in the 'why', and why should he be? This one gets a little gruesome, and is the first tale here I would class as 'horror'. It seems caught somewhere between a dream and a night terror. And from reading this, I'd bet my last beer that Hill has a long standing love for the Sci-Fi-Horror films of the 50's. He mentions a few, (one featuring my beloved Vincent Price), but that aside, its still obvious that the affection is there. I adored this story. Lets call it a look inside the insect mind. I have no idea what else to call it.

ABRAHAM'S BOYS : Now this is horror. Here's a very tight little story that drips with suspense and unease. It takes a character whom all horror fans will be familiar with, and looks at him from a completely different angle. Maybe I'm slow, but it took me some time to realize who the hell the literary figure was. Brilliantly, even after doing so, the whole thing is still up in the air. You may be left with questions. For me that was part of the fun. This reminded me of nothing so much as the twisted genius of Richard Laymon. A macabre story that's happy to simply be a macabre story.

I'll post the 2nd half very soon. See you there...

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