Hill's subject matter is steeped in the pop culture and tabloid detritus of the last 50 years: serial killers, abducted children, families living on the fault lines between divorce and poverty, horror movies and supernatural fiction. Yet his real focus is an almost obsessively nuanced exploration of the nature of American manhood. The presiding spirits of 20th Century Ghosts are lost boys and damaged men, running for their lives across a blighted, often surreal modern landscape … Hill's best stories veer away from the well-trodden creep shows and back alleys of genre writing into more dangerous territory: suburban basements, ball fields and schoolyards. These are where his protagonists, all male, vie with brothers, fathers, friends (but only occasionally wives or lovers) to stake some small claim to a deceptively mundane prize, what the narrator of the wrenching ‘Voluntary Committal’ calls ‘a strong sense of self.’
‘Pop Art,’ ‘You Will Hear the Locust Sing’ and ‘Voluntary Committal’ are all terrific, and the rest are, at a minimum, solid, swift and craftsmanlike. But ‘Best New Horror’ seems to me the most thrillingly original of Hill’s weird tales, a daredevil performance that keeps some complex ideas suspended in the air along with, of course, our usual disbelief. It’s brave and astute of Hill to acknowledge that some part of the appeal of horror fiction — of any genre fiction, really — is its very predictability: the comfort of knowing, at least, what kind of story we’re reading … Joe Hill has clearly given a fair amount of hard thought to the problematics of horror. It’s his destiny, I suppose.
20th Century Ghosts is Hill's first collection of short stories and displays consummate skill in a variety of genres. Heredity theory would lead you to expect some horror tales, and you'd be right —’You Will Hear the Locus Sing’ (a Kafka update) is a stomach-churner, and the kidnapper story ‘Black Phone’ is grisly and suspenseful. ‘Best New Horror’ simultaneously subverts and pays tribute to horror conventions in an entertaining literary nightmare. But wait, there's more — the title tale's heartbreaking, cinematic supernatural love story; the funny, fantastic ‘Pop Art’ (an inflatable boy will touch your heart); the science-fictional ‘Voluntary Committal’, exploring a mentally ill boy's time-and-space-folding superpowers … Stylistically, Hill can ratchet up the tension or toss in a wry observation, without fanfare or showiness. Amusing, moving, horrifying — Ghosts runs the full spectrum.