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20th Century Ghosts

I am a big fan of Joe Hill, first becoming aware of him through his graphic novel series Locke & Key. Afterward, I read other graphic novels by him, plus his horror-themed short story collections. I read this book years ago and found it uneven, for it was his first published book. While it did include some gems, he has honed his writing since then.

Best New Horror (4/5): An editor on the lookout for a promising author finds him in a home reminiscent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Did he escape?

20th Century Ghost (3.5/5): A theatre is haunted. Alec buys it anyway.

Pop Art (4/5): I almost gave up on this magical realism tale, but it grew on me. An inflatable boy is real- just go with it.

You Will Hear the Locust Sing (2/5): Radiation turns Francis into an insect. Chaos ensues.

Abraham’s Boys (4/5): Atmospheric rural gothic horror.

Better Than Home (2/5): Skipped most of this baseball-themed story.

The Black Phone (5/5): First of my two favorites. A boy is kidnapped and the disconnected black phone in his prison will help save him. Recently it was tuned into an excellent movie with Ethan Hawke.

In the Rundown (4/5): Kensington is a punk who gets drawn into a domestic tragedy. Who will be believed?

The Cape (4.5/5): This story is the reason I picked up the collection. I read the graphic novel that is based on this story, hoping for more insight. Turns out the graphic novel story is more fleshed out than this story. A solid and disturbing story. Read my review of the illustrated version, plus its prequel.

Last Breath (3/5): Saw the ending coming a mile away.

Dead-Wood (3/5): Super short story about trees.

The Widow’s Breakfast (4/5): Historical fiction set during the Depression with a slightly creepy end.

Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead (3.5/5): Not scary at all, and the a$$ in the story might steal away his ex.

My Father’s Mask (2/5): Weird, weird story with a 70s vibe.

Voluntary Committal (5/5): Second fav, and the longest of the stories. A cool and creepy story about brothers and other dimensions.

Even if this collection didn’t knock my socks off, I adore his work as a whole, and will always seek his books out.

Strange Weather

Strange Weather is a collection of four novellas by a favored horror novelist of mine, Joe Hill. I listened to it on audio, and was pleased by the four different narrators, two of them Star Trek alum!

Snapshot (4.5/5)

Set in California in 1988, awkward and friendless Michael helps his elderly former babysitter back home when she is found wandering the neighborhood. Shelly, suffering from dementia, tells Micahel of a strange man who has taken pictures of her using a Polaroid-type camera to steal her memories. Micahel agrees to be her occasional caretaker and learns that her ramblings were actually correct when this evil man comes after her again. After the deadly struggle, there is a surprisingly long conclusion where teen Micahel grows up and takes steps to help Shelly escape her mortal life from her ignoble life in a nursing home. This was a sad and poignant story about the loss of identity and family ties. Voiced well by Wil Wheaton.

Loaded (4/5)

This story was rough. An unhinged mall security guard seemingly saves the lives of others when a shooting between a jewelry store owner and his jilted mistress results in collateral damage at the mall. The readers know how he illegally gained his gun and how the shooting truly unfolded, but to those in his community, he is hailed as a hero. But a single mother journalist, who has her own story of an unjustified shooting in the past, begins to find holes in the guard’s story. The conclusion was deadly and heartbreaking and proves the quote: “Guns don’t kill people, people do”.

Aloft (3.5/5)

A young man’s first parachute jump goes haywire when as the last to jump of his friends, he lands on a strange cloud that had looked like a UFO…and is. Stranded there this ship senses him and taps into his mind giving him a cloud woman based on his unrequited love, but he knows it is but a fantasy and stumbles upon the remains of three people from the 1800s who had perished there after crashing their hot air balloon on the UFO. He discovers the alien (the description reminded me of the tentacled alien found on the animated The Simpsons) and then makes the decision to jump using the old hot balloon silks. I wondered how he would explain that he landed two states away from his jump point.

Rain (4/5)

On an ordinary day in Boulder, Colorado, a deadly rainstorm suddenly appears- raining down crystal spikes that kill anyone unlucky enough to be outside. A woman who had been excited that her girlfriend was moving in that day, instead sees her beloved die. She then takes off on a post-apocalyptic road trip to tell her lover’s father what happened and, of course, is besieged. There are a few political digs towards Trump/Pence that will amuse you (me) or make you mad. Voiced by the indomitable Kate Mulgrew aka Captain Janeway.

All four stories had different feels, from very dark to almost light-hearted. In his afterward Hill said, “Short novels are all killer, no filler” and I agree. I love short stories (that’s why I love the LeVar Burton Reads podcast so much) because they get straight to the point, for there is an economy to the writing that is stronger than some authors who write 500+ page books that are overflowing with unneeded details. This is yet another book of Hill’s that I would recommend to others!

Refrigerator Full of Heads

DC Black Label gave author Joe Hill his own comic label- Hill House Comics, and the first book in his line was Basketful of Heads, which was full of dark humor and was ridiculous fun. This sequel, led by a new creative team and authored by Rio Youers, builds off the first but amps up the gore and ludicrousness by 100%!

The year is 1984, and a year has passed since June survived a massacre on Brody Island and threw the magical Norse axe into the bay. Two undercover Department of Defense agents arrive on the island to find the axe, but a biker gang is also on the trail. June, who has tried to put to distance herself from last summer’s tragedy is pulled into it again, as the biker gang has located more Norse weapons that are deadly and magical and want her to reveal where the axe is to complete their collection. When the axe is discovered by the DoD agents, it comes in very handy when a great white shark attacks them. The story leans into the absurd with this shark and soon the vacation rental’s refrigerator starts to fill up with the heads of bikers and corrupt cops. While I liked June and the DoD agents, Calvin (loved his shirt!) and Arlene, the bikers were simply created to be evil with no redeeming characteristics. You must have a huge suspension of disbelief throughout, especially for a certain rolling head that points to yet another sequel in the future.

Artists Tom Fowler and Craig A Taillefer gave the characters a Mad magazine type of caricature treatment, which was the aesthetic established in the first book, but further supported in that Fowler has worked for Mad in the past. I loved the chapter breaks, as different authors gave their interpretations of the story. The action scenes, especially with the shark, could get to be a bit much with too many panels. There were times in a two-page spread I wasn’t sure if I should read top to bottom and start at the top of the second page again, or if it spread over the entire two pages.

While I wouldn’t recommend this book to a newbie, it builds off the first story well, so if you liked Basketful of Heads you should definitely check out this over-the-top story as well!

Stray Dogs

“What do you get when you crossbreed Silence of the Lambs with All Dogs Go To Heaven? Well, you get Stray Dogs” (Forbes). Yes, what a perfect description of this dark tail (tale)!

Sophie is a new dog in a house full of dogs but she senses something is off. Where is her beloved female owner? Unfortunately, dogs have faulty, short-term memories so she can’t quite remember what happened, but she knows something bad occurred. The man who brought her to the home wraps her in a scarf with the scent of her previous owner, and suddenly Sophie remembers this man is a killer. She frantically tells the other dogs but they dismiss her allegations, as they too have forgotten their previous owners and the tragedy that brought them to this new remote house in the country. But eventually, it becomes evident that each dog is a trophy of a killing, and the other dogs help her search for answers. You will gasp and have to contain your tears when you later witness a certain trophy case. Despite all this, most of the killing is implied and off-page, so the story is remarkably bloodless.

The art style is based on the Don Bluth style of animation, showcased in classic children’s movies like the aforementioned All Dogs Go To Heaven, plus An American Tail, The Land Before Time, and The Secret of NIMH. You will fall in love with each heroic dog, but then because of that, be devastated when some dogs don’t survive. Make sure you check out the cover art from the back of the book and look at the covers from each issue. They are inspired- leaning into the horror genre- by paying homage to famous movie posters.

While some people, especially dog lovers, might not enjoy this wicked thriller, I believe the juxtaposition of cutesy art and a deadly storyline make it a graphic novel not to be missed!

The Weight of Blood

I loved this retelling of Stephen King’s classic horror story Carrie! Updated by Tiffany D. Jackson to reflect the modern day, this novel also adds in the insidious effects of racism, making this a layered and timely narrative. I listened to this book on audio, and its full voice cast kept me mesmerized.

Set in a small town in Georgia in 2014, Maddy is a bi-racial girl raised by her single white father, who has forced her to hide her racial identity her entire life. Homeschooled as a child, she has been bullied and ostracized since starting public school in seventh grade. An incident at school with her hair during her senior year, reveals her secret and she is mocked for it, but of course, the bullies claim they are not racists, they were just joking. The bullying intensifies, and the students decide to have their first integrated prom to diffuse the bad press their school is receiving. Wendy, a white popular student who feels guilty, convinces her football star Black boyfriend Kenny to ask Maddy to the prom as penance. Due to the trauma she has endured, Maddy begins to discover she has telekinetic powers that come into deadly play when what you know will happen, happens at prom.

The framework of the story is set up as a podcast as a true-crime enthusiast and a skeptic research and discuss the horrific day. This switching between the past and the present day is effective and lets these podcasters muse about how the long-reaching legacy of racism led to Maddy’s breakdown. This chilling book was excellent and expertly braided in dark themes, making this more than your typical horror story. A few threads were left unexplored in the conclusion, so I would love a sequel!

Delphine

Happy Halloween! My graphic novel horror pick this year is Delphine, which takes some classic fairy tales and subverts them.

Once upon a time…there was a college student (who remains unnamed throughout the story) who falls in love with the mysterious Delphine. The two had been on the cusp of a new romance when she was called back to her hometown to care for her ailing father. While she had promised to stay in touch, she doesn’t, thus sending this substitute Prince Charming on a quest to find her. This young man finds excuses to explain what is happening at first but soon enough realizes these disturbing experiences are not normal. There is symbolism that is recognizable from fairy tales- a poisoned apple, a coven of witches, a group of dwarves, a kindly woodsman and a big bad wolf- but it is all jumbled together in a manner that can not be understood. All the while, his lost love Delphine remains out of reach.

The art is done in duotone, with browns dominating, giving it a moody shadowy vibe. The paneling structure is straightforward, often four to six panels per page. Only the chapter breaks give you full-page illustrations with additional color. Most of the town inhabitants are gaunt, with extreme features that are caricatures of villains you would see in fairy tales. While at first, the illustrations seemed lackluster, they grew on me and matched the ominous tone of the narrative.

Twisted tales are popular and often overused storytelling devices, but in this case, it really works. Elements of fairy tales and horror are braided together well, and you will wonder what you would do if you were dropped into a macabre village with no escape!

The Haunting of Hill House

I have heard great things about this novel, plus I loved author Shirley Jackson’s short story collection The Lottery and Other Stories, so I went in with high expectations for this story. Disappointingly, it didn’t deliver due to a lack of scares and characters that I didn’t connect with.

The premise is that a paranormal scientist, Dr. Montague, recruits people who have had paranormal events occur in their life come stay at the infamous Hill House that is rumored to be haunted. He reaches out to a dozen possibilities, but only two, timid Eleanor and bohemian Theodora, plus Luke who is the future heir of the house, commit to staying. A married pair of caretakers cook for them and tend the house, but leave by 6 pm as they refuse to stay in the remote location after dark. The original four start to experience strange phenomena, with Eleanor seeming to be the most susceptible. The supernatural happenings are always unseen, with implied threats, but not physical manifestations. The four veer between documenting these events and then acting as if they simply are on holiday at a country estate. Later, the doctor’s imperious wife, and family friend Arthur join them; but again it is Eleanor that the house seems to be focusing on.

Published in 1959, it is a product of its time, so the dated references both help it and hinder it. In many ways, I enjoyed this look into the late 1950s era, which relied on letters to reach out to people and no technology to help or distract them. However, the overnight guests were inexplicitly snippy and spiteful with one another with fragile Eleanor getting on my nerves, especially with her oft-repeated ” Journeys end in lover’s meetings” quote. But Jackson did describe the Gothic house well, with excellent world-building of the house’s dark past.

The conclusion came suddenly, with the Doctor insisting that Eleanor leave by herself with no assistance, and of course, this week-long experiment ends tragically. Since I can’t help but look at the narrative through a modern lens, there were so many other things this group could have done differently to have a better outcome. But then, it wouldn’t have become a classic horror story if it ended well, would it?

Nightmares and Dreamscapes

While Stephen King will always be considered a horror writer, some of these stories had more of a science-fiction bent or had a coming-of-age angle. These stories were written in the 1970s to the early 90s, so it is a time capsule of life then- certainly “modern-day”, yet very dated several decades later. I’ve also noticed in many of his works, that he has bad things happen to good people. That actually scares more people, because these people are not deserving of their fate, and readers worry that tragedy could befall them around the next corner, and that is frightening indeed.

Suffer the Little Children

An old-school third-grade teacher thinks one of her students is possessed. When she also begins to suspect it is spreading among her students, she takes drastic measures.

Crouch End

Two detectives investigate a neighborhood in north London that seems to have an otherwordly portal that opens without notice which has caused people to go missing over the years.

Rainy Season

Inspired by Shirley Jackson’s story The Lottery, a married couple is unlucky enough to visit a town that demands a sacrifice every seven years. Venomous toads rain down on the town one night, and the townspeople move on quickly afterward, explaining away the tragedy and are not willing to break its ugly cycle. The audio edition was voiced by Yeardley Smith, so it was incredibly distracting to have the story read by someone who sounds like Lisa Simpson, from the cartoon series The Simpsons.

Dolan’s Cadillac

When a schoolteacher’s wife is killed by a mobster for testifying against him, the husband vows revenge. He then plans the most ridiculous, convoluted and difficult Rube Goldberg type of trap to capture this man on a deserted stretch of road.

The House on Maple Street

Based on the story prompt and picture from Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book The Mysteries of Harry Burdick, four siblings discover their house is transforming into a rocket ship and they conspire to get rid of their ogre stepfather.

Umney’s Last Case

Told in a noir-type manner, a detective’s life starts to go to shit with people leaving him and disrespecting him. Holed up in his office licking his wounds, a client comes thru and reveals he is an author and that Umney is a character of his in a book and he intends to change lives with him.

Head Down & Brooklyn August

Head Down is an essay that is an ode to baseball and Brooklyn August is a short poem also celebrating baseball. Neither is horror related at all.

Chattery Teeth

A traveling salesman buys a set of novelty teeth for his son, and when his trip across a desert goes sideways because of a psychotic hitchhiker, this little gift helps him out in an unexpected manner.

My Pretty Pony

“Time is a pretty pony, with a wicked heart” is the theme of the story as a grandfather ruminates on the nature of time to his grandson. Kinda boring, and not horror related.

Sneakers

A recording engineer notices dirty sneakers in a bathroom stall near him for weeks, before finding out that a drug deal gone wrong years ago resulted in a haunting of the building by the victim. This ghost tells him who killed him.

Dedication

A working-class mother is thrilled that her son has written a novel that is bound to be a best seller and she tells a friend how she was able to use some black magic years ago to give her son his writing gifts. Overly long story.

The Doctor’s Case

King decided to write a non-canon Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson story in a pastiche manner- honoring the original style and building upon it. In this story, a horrible father is found murdered and the duo needs to figure out if it was his put-upon wife or abused sons that did it. Dr. Watson figures it out before Holmes, and it is unrealistic, but true to the style of British mysteries written during that time frame.

The Moving Finger

What’s worse than finding a rat in your NYC apartment? How about a moving finger?!

The End of the Whole Mess

A man recounts in a journal how his prodigy younger brother discovered a cure for aggression in a water source, without noting it also brought on dementia. While trying for world peace, he instead doomed the whole planet to death. The last part of the journal reminded me of Flowers for Algernon.

Home Delivery

A timid young widow who is pregnant needs to learn how to cope by herself when there is a zombie apocalypse and those in the local graveyard come back to life. This was a surprisingly strong story with realistic details on how a small island community would survive.

It Grows on You

Set in Castle Rock, King’s favorite fictional Maine town, a house seems to mysteriously have new wings added on that correlate when bad things befall the townsfolk. This story didn’t seem complete.

The Fifth Quarter

A heist gone wrong…a double cross…a shootout. Meh.

You Know They Got a Hell of a Band

A couple takes a scenic backroad and gets lost, leading them to the picturesque town of Rock and Roll Heaven, Oregon. The town inhabitants look very familiar, and soon they realize there is no escape from this strange vortex. Reminded me of Pines by Black Crouch and In the Tall Grass written by King years later with his son Joe Hill. Grace Slick was the inspired choice for the audio narration of this story.

The Night Flier

A sleazy tabloid journalist reports that a vampire is on the loose. What happens when his headline is actually true?!

Popsy

The vampire is back! A gambler makes a grave mistake when he grabs a child to sell and finds out he shouldn’t have messed with Popsy and his creepy grandson! An effective story that was also one of the shortest.

Sorry, Right Number

Written like a screenplay, a wife receives a frantic call phone call from someone in distress but doesn’t realize until five years after her husband’s death who was actually making the call. The audio version was terrible.

The Ten O’Clock People

A bizarre story about how people who are trying to quit smoking and thus are in nicotine withdrawal are the only people to see how evil bat people are taking over society.

The Beggar and the Diamond

A short retelling of a Hindu parable. I thought it was an odd addition to this collection.

Chattery Teeth, Home Delivery and Popsy were my favorites from this long 816-page book. While I didn’t enjoy every story, I admire how King likes to vary his writing style and tries new approaches. His short stories have always appealed to me, and I will continue to seek out his work.

Bird Box + Malorie

Bird Box (2014)

Author Josh Malerman took a possible horror trope- what if you can’t see- and turned it into an excellent harrowing thriller. Malorie is a young woman facing an unexpected pregnancy when the world starts to experience an apocalyptic disaster of people going mad once they see new creatures that have inexplicably appeared. With her family dead, she is able to make her way to a safe house where she joins other survivors who try to cope with this new world order.

While the book takes place in Malorie’s present day as she is trying to row to safety on a river with her two young children, her memories take us back to when the crisis started and continues through her travails with her housemates. The idea of having to blindfold yourself outside is terrifying, as her world constricts with little hope of salvation. While there were some problems with the narrative, especially in the timing of events regarding the birth scene, I was captivated by the entire book. I very much look forward to watching the movie next and comparing the two. (Aside- Sandra Bullock portrayed Malorie well in the Netflix movie, and it had a diverse cast. It changed up a few things but was a solid adaptation)

Malorie (2020)

As a big fan of Bird Box, and pleased that it ended on an optimistic note, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read Malorie but I’m glad I did. After a few years at the School for the Blind, chaos erupts and Malorie and her two children, Tom and Olympia, are on the run again. They happen unto an abandoned summer camp and make their home there for a decade, but their life there is interrupted by someone who brings them news of the outside world. The trio ventures out once they hear that Malorie’s parents might be alive and that there is a train that can take them northward. Tom and Olympia, now teens, have been kept safe by their mother and her many rules but are chaffing and want to be in the larger world. Tom, who is an inventor, learns of a town that has people who are trying to live with the creatures that have overtaken their world, and Olympia is hiding a huge secret from both her brother and mother. The idea of traveling 30 miles with a blindfold on and surrounded by creatures that will turn you mad if you see them, is horrifying, and things of course spiral out of control for them, even after finding the train. The conclusion was rushed, after a slow start, but it again ended optimistically with a chance for salvation for this family that preserved despite overwhelming odds.

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