Saturday, January 4, 2014

Audio Review: 20th Century Ghosts

Listened Dec 2013 - January 2014
3 Stars - Recommended to fans of short stories that follow no real ebb or flow; Not as good as Heart Shaped Box or Horns, but some of these stories have real staying power
Audio CD
Publisher: Harper Audio

I toss and turn when it comes to short story collections. When executed right, they can be amazing. Breathtaking, even. Themed collections, or collections that contain loose, interconnecting threads have always been a favorite. I love making my way through them, experiencing the stories as they continue to grow and take on new meaning.

Other times, the stories in a collection can end up working against each other. They can be clunky and awkward, creating uncomfortable hiccups that distract, rather than attract. They can start to feel forced and wrong, or just plain jarring.

When I downloaded the 20th Century Ghosts audiobook, I just assumed all of the stories contained within it were going to be about... well, you know... ghosts. Or at least be ghost-like. I mean, the title alludes to as much, right? But if memory serves me right, since I listened to this in the car on my daily commute to and from work thus making it impossible to take notes or jot down story titles to refer back to, there was exactly one story that contained a ghost. The title story. The rest were a mish-mosh of strange, fantastical, creepy, and sometimes (don't throw things at me) boring stories that didn't seem to mesh very well together, no matter how hard they tried.

Quite a few of Hill's stories stuck with me long after I heard them - The title story about the ghost of the dead girl who haunted the theater; "Pop Art", about a kid, normal in every way except for the fact that he was born as an inflatable boy-shaped balloon; the fairy-tale-esque "My Father's Mask", about the strange family who travel to a cabin and don masks to "hide" for the weekend; and the most intriguing of all, "Voluntary Committal" the story about Morris and his cardboard tunnels system that "disappears" people.

These stories were like a beacon of light in the dark, and complimented each other very well, while the rest just simply fell flat and struggled to shine a light of their own. The Kakfa and Van Helsing's ripoffs; the kidnapped teenager in the basement who took calls from the dead; and the two straight up fiction stories "Better Than Home", about the autistic kid who's dad is a baseball coach ( which read so very much like King's "Blockade Billy") and "Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead", which is basically just about a dude playing an extra in a zombie flick who runs into an old crush of his on the set.

Now, to be clear, I am not critiquing Hill's writing in any way. I am a huge fan of his work, and really fell hard for Heart Shaped Box and Horns. What I am critiquing is the fact that his editor allowed those latter stories to be included with the former to create one uneven, and somewhat disappointing, collection. So listening to it, as it was read, felt a lot like being in a hurky-jerky roller coaster, one that speeds up too fast and breaks too hard, slamming your head back and forth as the car flies along the tracks.

The creepier stories sucked the life out of the ones that were much-less-so. How do I say this? It's like... taking two sisters who are both gorgeous in their own right. When looked upon separately, they are flawless. They steal your breath away and just gazing upon them makes you swoon. But when placed next to each other, one will always outshine the other. Her hair is shinier, her teeth are straighter, her eyes are more centered, her skin is less ashen, while the other starts to become more frumpy looking, less alluring, less... hot. You get what I'm saying?

The narrator, David LeDoux, did a pretty great job reading the stories. As I find with most male narrators, he had a habit of making the women sound like flamboyantly gay men or as though they were doped up on some completely personality-numbing drug, and he himself reads a bit nasally, but overall he kept my attention - especially on the parts where he dropped his voice to a near-whisper, making me lean in towards the car speakers.

And then there's that whole matter of the strangely inserted musical breaks. You would think the music would denote the end of a story, an audible clue that the listener should mentally prepare to say goodbye to the old characters and prepare for a whole new set of them, as we loaded up the next audio file, but that wasn't the case. Harper Audio, instead, seems to have inserted musical breaks within some of the stories. Was it because those story was longer than others? And that was Harper's way of separating part one from part two? Because I don't have a paper copy, there is no way for me to verify that. Needless to say, because of that, the music was distracting and awkward and sometimes quite confusing. Some stories didn't have any, some had it more than once...

Overall, there's a part of me that wishes that 20th Century Ghosts had been my first experience with Joe Hill, because as I listened to this audiobook, I felt as though I was hearing his writing regress, when in fact, as each new novel comes out, Joe Hill is actually honing and fine tuning his storytelling.

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