Joe Hill’s Ghosts

I’m in a bit of a daze right now.

It’s a familiar feeling, a heat that suffuses my body, a euphoria that shakes me to the core: everything around me seems insubstantial, ephemeral, and unreal. I’m still in the book, see, still locked in that other place, and its hooks are sunk too deep. I keep spacing out. My head is full of Joe Hill’s ghosts. I just stood outside the office building for half an hour, reading the last few pages, unable to stop – unwilling – hating every last second in the race to the end because I knew it would come to a stop.

Except it didn’t.

The best stories never do. They stay with you, fragments of discarded dreams, memories, characters and ideas lodged forever in your head. I feel jittery and strange, like I’m on the brink of something, it’s the start of a football match, the last shot in a game of tennis, the first kiss in a night full of fucking; I feel like I should be jumping up and down, not sitting still, so obscenely still while my mind’s racing so goddamn fast. Not that I could catch it even if I were trying.

So, to clue you in, I just finished Joe Hill’s short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts. It was simply phenomenal. There’s no other way to put it, actually, scratch that, there’s a thousand ways you could put it: it’s beautiful, magical, wonderful, terrifying, funny, weird, transcendent, moving, dark, sublime. It’s everything I could ever want it to be and then some. At its heart, I feel like this collection is a love letter (well, series of) to Horror as a genre, as a concept. We see old horror, new horror, B-horror, and worst of all, quiet, domestic horror – the ugly darkness of human nature, exposed. It’s less an examination of the things we fear and more an investigation into personal responses to fucking awful events and this is why it’s so successful. Joe Hill makes it personal. He makes you care, even as he’s slowly sinking the knife in.

As readers, I think we like to imagine we can see parts of the author in the work, little revelatory moments in which we think – intentional or otherwise – the writer has been exposed. In every book, we look for this Dorothy moment, this unveiling of the Wizard. Eventually, I had to stop consciously doing that. This book teems with intimate, personal stories, usually involving adolescents and childhood and any single one of them could be something taken straight from Joe Hill’s life. Such is the strength of the writing, you feel as though these are all memories, perfectly preserved and jotted down – in some, it’s less palpable, to be sure but by and large that connection is there and it takes you by storm. It certainly swept me away. It could very well be that he decided to bare himself as much as he could in telling these stories, these tales with their overarching themes of a childhood estranged, of family dysfunction, and grief and loss half-remembered, best forgotten.

But it’s difficult to tell, and I’m not sure if I’d like to know one way or the other. Each story had a different voice, never weaker than the last, always compelling and each time, I found myself thinking, ‘ah, this is him, this is his life,’ and that is not an easy thing to manage. Not at all. In this sea of fantastic stories, however, just as there are weaker elements, there are also standouts and the two for me, if I had to choose just two, would be ‘Pop Art’ and ‘Voluntary Committal’. ‘Pop Art’ is just an incredible example of the craft of short story telling, it’s clinically perfect in execution and a marked detour from Hill’s usual style.

It’s difficult to earmark exactly what that usual style is, actually, it’s deceptively simple…I feel as if through most of his stories I’m walking down a cobblestone path, it’s humble but solid and carefully put together and you’re so at ease as you walk down the path, so familiar with the pattern of stones, that you don’t actually notice where you’re going, where you’re being driven, and you don’t care one way or the other really. You just delight in the comfort it evokes, the beauty of the craftsmanship.

With ‘Pop Art’ however, the simple artisan steps back and an architect comes forward to create a dizzying tower of glass.  ‘Pop Art’ is a series of snapshots that outline a weirdly beautiful story about a boy and his inflatable friend. Not a single word is wasted, not a foot is put wrong, and you just know that it’s the kind of delicate structure that if a single panel had been misplaced the whole thing would have come crashing down. As for ‘Voluntary Committal’, it’s the best example of Hill’s usual style (as confusingly as I described it), it was an unbelievable delight to read. I finished it only an hour or so ago now and I think I’m actually still too close to it to talk about it. Some things you want to keep a hold of and I’m not quite willing to let it go just yet.

Joe Hill is one of those writers that makes me angry; angry at his being so damn good, angry at myself for not being better, and angry at the world for not paying more attention to such a talented writer. He’s plenty popular, by all accounts mind you, but it’s still not enough as far as I’m concerned. Do yourself a favour and get a hold of everything he’s ever written.

You won’t regret it.

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