I was excited about this month’s book club. I missed the meeting for An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth because I didn’t manage to buy the book in time, never mind read it. I wasn’t devastated because I wasn’t overly excited about it but I’m still yet to really branch out with the books that I do pick up for book club. I think that actually it’s partly that every month is a bit much for me – I’m only managing to read a book a week at the moment and I’m reluctant to have a quarter of the books that I read be picked by my book club…
June’s pick: 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
I was quite excited about this one. We picked it a few months ago because one of the members had been given it as a gift and it was something different to the other books that we’d read. There were a few Stephen King fans in the group and the introduction made it sound as though the stories would have a literary edge to entertain those less keen on the gory side of things (yep, ME!).
The verdict wasn’t good.
Out of the 9 people that turned up (me included), only 3 people had read all of the stories all of the way through. Nobody went so far as to say that they’d enjoyed all (or even most) of what they had read. The lady who had suggested it actually apologised to everybody for bringing the book into our lives. 3 utterly despised it and refused to read more than a couple of stories (although one of them has quite sensitive taste and has previously complained about ‘bad language’ in books…). The remaining 3 (me included) had read a good amount of the stories and were sort of ok about some but underwhelmed and disappointed overall.
I think the main problem was that Hill’s short stories are either extremely disturbing (the first story in particular is awful and features eye gouging, rape and mutilation) or plain weird. Like I said at the ‘meeting’, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was constantly missing something. There was one story that I really liked (Pop Art) about a boy with an inflatable friend, a sort of balloon boy that bobs along and attends school but who can’t talk and instead writes notes to express himself. I got that it was in part about vulnerability and about the fragility of life but I’m sure there were plenty of ideas that bypassed me entirely. I hope that I was missing something, actually, because otherwise most of the stories are just bizarre.
I’ve actually never been a huge fan of short stories and this collection wasn’t the one to change that view. Of the stories that I finished, I found that there were a couple that I wanted to be developed more (like the haunting tale of a ghost in an ageing cinema) and some that just felt like Hill had woken up from a bad dream, scribbled it down and thrown it into the collection (like the story of a man that wakes up half locust and goes a-rampaging). There weren’t any that felt like they encapsulated a single idea or image so perfectly that a short story was just enough.
One man’s feeling was that it felt like the work of an undeveloped writer. The beginnings of most of the stories are solid. A few fade away, a few go off on a weird tangent but a few do start to build into something that could be great with a little more refinement. I think that maybe I agree. I did say that I’d recently read NOS4R2 and really loved it so there was more to Hill than this collection – I genuinely think that his skills are far better shown off in longer stories where he can play on readers’ uncertainty over his characters to far greater effect. With a full novel, you know that Hill is playing with you and that nothing is quite as it seems because you’re shown enough to know that it isn’t sloppy story telling but a web that he’s weaving. His short stories didn’t give me (or any of my fellow book clubbers) that impression. They just feel like he’s had the start of some ideas, the beginnings of a whole host of NOS4R2s, but never quite worked them all way through.
Part of this could also be the fact that none of us seemed to want to be scared just for the sake of it. I’ll read scary books (it turns out) but only where there’s more to them than just the chills. I don’t want to read simple stories designed to terrify with the least amount of words possible or peek at snapshots of horrifying images. I want grey areas and doubt. Horror that creeps up on me in a dignified manner or lures me in gradually and artfully. I don’t want it shouting in my face. If you prefer/can tolerate the shouting, 20th Century Ghosts could be more for you.
Oh, one last thing! Interestingly, one person’s complaint was that Joe Hill was over-rated and that the only reason he was published was because he was trading on his father’s name. It surprised me because I’ve always thought exactly the opposite. His work could be splattered with quotes from Stephen King raving about how great his son’s books are and he could use the name ‘King’. He doesn’t. Those arguments fell on deaf ears, because apparently it’s Hill’s fault that people just know who his father is…you can’t win ’em all, I guess.
July’s pick: The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz
I’m really looking forward to this one. Station Eleven and The Martian were both in the mix but The House of Silk was picked as the safest bit to pick everyone up after the Joe Hill disappointment. Anybody have any views? Please tell me that I’m not going to get let down again!