November 08, 2007


20th Century Ghosts. By Joe Hill. William Morrow. $24.95.

The Missing. By Sarah Langan. HarperSuspense. $6.99.

      There are better and worse ways to do horror, and the amount of blood and gore is not a sure guide to which is which. The 15 stories in Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts include some that are scary in the best way: Hill makes you care about the characters before awful or simply strange things happen to them. Some of the tales have a psychological edge to them, too, such as the title story (actually called 20th Century Ghost, singular), in which the ghost of a young woman haunts an old and soon-to-be-refurbished movie theater, eventually finding a kindred spirit and, one might almost say, a lifelong friend, in the only way that a ghost can. Hill is better in these short stories than in his first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, which was a little too far over the top and which never quite made readers care about its protagonist’s fate. Of course, Hill can be over-the-top in short form, too: You Will Hear the Locust Sing is a delightful made-for-B-movie story about an unhappy man who is transformed into an eight-foot-tall locust that terrorizes his town – and just to be sure you don’t miss the connection with Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Hill names his protagonist Francis Kay. There is little doubt of Hill’s enjoyment of B movies: another story here, Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead, pays homage (of sorts) to the zombie films of George Romero. Most of the tales, though, are effective because of their psychological underpinnings, including The Cape, about a young man whose homemade cape once let him fly and who now has a darker reason to try it again, and The Black Phone, in which a kidnapped teenager keeps hearing a long-disconnected phone ring. Not everything here is creepy: Better Than Home is a mainstream father-son story about how memories are made and which ones are worth preserving, and The Widow’s Breakfast is an atmospheric Depression-era tale. But Hill does do fright particularly well, even in a short-short such as Dead-Wood, which is ostensibly about trees but within a few hundred words proves to be more far-reaching: “Something that doesn’t know it’s alive obviously can’t be expected to know when it’s dead.” Hill shapes these stories with care and skill, guiding the reader through a welter of emotions.

      The only emotion that Sarah Langan seeks to evoke in The Missing is fear, and while she does so effectively, her living-dead plot is so hackneyed and her over-reliance on gore so pronounced that a (+++) rating for the book almost seems generous. Intense-horror fans are clearly the audience here; the plot is straight out of Zombie Central Casting. What happens is that a mysterious accident destroys a small town in Stephen King territory – Maine, that is; but the nearby town of Corpus Christi (no, not the one in Texas) is more or less oblivious to what happened – simply grateful to have been unaffected, and preoccupied with the problems of small-town life as envisioned by an author who lives in Brooklyn. Those include kids with school difficulties, relationships gone bust, psychological worries from the past that continue to be troubling, and suchlike. Of course, it turns out that what happened nearby does have dire implications for Corpus Christi, as people start coming down with a mysterious illness and developing a craving for – what else? – blood. This gives Langan the chance to write all sorts of gory scenes in which she starts to give what seems to be a little background on this one-dimensional character or that one, but then breaks off so the character can be horribly dispatched. Langan’s underlying idea of a “zombie virus” is nothing new, nor is her notion of living in a world gone mad and far outside our control. Langan does write well and pace her stories effectively, as she showed in her first novel, The Keeper. But this second one hews a little too closely to genre stereotypes to be a compelling read – unless, of course, you have a craving for blood of a certain type: the type described in…type.

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