I found this in the “Customers Also Bought” section while buying an ebook version of Stephen King’s Different Seasons — another great collection. Hill is King’s son, and also writes horror, as well as mainstream fiction. 20th Century Ghosts is mostly a mix of horror and fantastic realism, with a few mainstream fictions thrown in.
It’s interesting to see the themes that repeat in multiple stories: Sons’ relationships with their fathers, or with their brothers — sometimes positive, sometimes not. Boyhood school friendships. Autism and other developmental disabilities. Missing children. Child abuse. Fratricide. Patricide. There’s a certain ambiguity in how mothers are represented, leaning towards the negative.
Some of the tales could be classified as supernatural horror, but the horror element isn’t from the supernatural, but from the prosaic: a child predator, or from some latent sociopathic tendencies in one of the characters. The supernatural instead often serves a positive function in the story. For instance, in one story, the ghosts of previous abduction victims find a way to help the current kidnapped child.
My two favorite stories aren’t horror; one isn’t even fantastic. “Better than Home” is a sweet story of an autistic boy’s relationship with his father, the coach of a losing baseball team. “Pop Art” is about a “tough kid” and his friendship with the class bully-bait, a boy named Arthur with a hereditary condition: he was born inflatable. It’s also a story about death, and loss, and letting go. I read it on a plane, and I’m sure the flight attendant wondered why I was crying. Hill writes boys’ relationships — with parents, with siblings, but especially with other boys — really well.
When your best friend is ugly — I mean bad ugly, deformed — you don’t kid them about shattering mirrors. In a friendship, especially in a friendship between two young boys, you are allowed to inflict a certain amount of pain. This is even expected. But you must cause no serious injury; you must never, under any circumstances, leave wounds that will result in permanent scars.
“Dead-Wood” reminded me of Jack Cady, though it was too short to be a satisfying story. More of a sketch, really. “My Father’s Mask” felt a bit like Thomas Ligotti, at least I think it did. It’s been a long time since I’ve read Ligotti (he’s not my favorite author). “Best New Horror” was the weakest story, in my opinion. It went exactly where you knew it would, although Christopher Golden, in the collection’s Introduction, argues that this is as it should be, for that piece.
Overall, a beautiful collection of tales, especially if you like a dose of the fantastic. Recommended.