The Black Phone: Stories
(20th Century Ghosts)
By Joe Hill
William Morrow & Company — December 2021
ISBN: 9780063215139 — Paperback — 480 pp.
First published in 2005 as 20th Century Ghosts, Joe Hill’s debut collection of sixteen short stories has been reprinted and rebranded as The Black Phone to coincide with another short story found within, now adapted into a film by Blumhouse Productions and directed by Scott Derrickson of the original Doctor Strange film. Blumhouse debuted the film at a festival in September 2021, with Universal slating it for broad release in January of this year. The film tie-in version of the collection therefore released just prior, in December. However, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic pushed the film into February, and then ultimately until now, June 2022. With the film now finally released to strong reviews, it seemed the right time for covering this copy I received. There is currently a new Goodreads giveaway for the collection as well, for anyone interested in winning a copy.
Of all the stories found within, “20th Century Ghosts” works the best as a representative title for the whole collection. “That Black Phone”, not so much. But, the latter does make some sense for adaptation into a film. It’s the most conventional horror story within the collection, with a plot that calls to mind real-life, serial-killer horrors and fictionalized retellings alike. And the characters of “The Black Phone” are closest to what one might find in something by Hill’s father, Stephen King.
The story of “The Black Phone is very simple. A young teen is abducted off the street by a fat man who works as a clown. The man gets the boy close to his van by drawing his attention after clumsily ‘losing’ a cluster of black helium-filled balloons from his van. The boy awakens locked in a basement, with only an old-style rotary phone hanging from the bare walls. The man seems on edge, both from keeping the abducted boy hidden in his basement, and from hallucinations of the phone ringing. But that can’t be possible. The phone doesn’t work. They boy hears the phone ring himself, and when he answers he hears the voice of one of the man’s past victims, a voice offering encouragement and the hope of escape.
Even with how well this general plot fits the mold of standard horror film plots, it remains unclear reading the few pages of “The Black Phone” of how it could be effectively expanded into a full length movie. And Ethan Hawke is a far, far cry from descriptions of the abductor in the short story. The short story is good, but its clear that the film is taking the basic plot and some visual elements of the story to craft something more complex, and perhaps more interesting, though also more derivative of King’s work in the opinions of some reviews I’ve read.
Though “The Black Phone” is good, other stories in this collection are clearly superior, with more originality and emotional resonance. Many fall into the category of horror, some simply the darker side of fantasy, and one of the best is actually on the conventional side of literature, and sweet. Hill also employs darkness and horror with a varying touch. Some stories, like “The Black Phone” are full-on horror from start to finish, while others only give a small dose of dread or terror, even just subtly implied.
And that calls to mind the stylistic tendency that does seem to unite most (if not all) the sixteen stories in the collection: Hill’s penchant for leaving things implied, for reader’s to form a complete image of their own, constructed from the pieces he provides. For some casual readers this could make the stories here feel unfinished, cut-off just when a clearly stated resolution or final image should be divulged. Hill’s stories typically lack any sort of coda, and even leave off directly telling the reader how things ‘conclude’.
However, this should not equate to the stories being interpreted as ‘unfinished’. Hill does provide plenty of details and contexts on how things will likely proceed from the moment the text of the story stops. His literary endings easily segue into film-like images that should spool through the reader’s mind. Often those ending moments also involve that little injection of horror, in a frightening realization and grim interpretation of where the story really has gone, despite expectations and assumptions.
The highlights of this collection for me were “20th Century Ghosts”, “Pop Art”, “You Will Hear the Locust Sing”, “Abraham’s Boys”, “Dead-Wood”, and “Voluntary Committal”. The last of these is a novella that concludes the main collection. I’ve written before how I dislike novellas, with their long length, at the end of things when my instincts call for a winding down. Despite this, the slow build unease of the plot and its understated horror were a success. “Dead-Wood” is on the opposite end of the length spectrum: a flash fiction done very well, touching on an aspect of ghosts I’ve often wondered about as a biologist. “Abraham’s Boys”, taken from an anthology on Van Helsing, is a powerful take on the effects of horror and trauma on the Dracula character, and his family, well after the novel concludes. It looks at the absolute violence and horror that define that character traditionally considered heroic and ‘good’. “You Will Hear the Locust Sing” is a wonderful creature horror-Kafkaesque mash-up, with bits of gore and humor alike. “Pop Art” is a touching story of friendship that shows Hill has talent well beyond the fields of horror genre tradition (which, interestingly, father King has often showed as well with works like “Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption”.) Finally, “20th Century Ghosts” is a well done ghost story of longing and memory – not ghosts for terror – that also displays a nostalgic love for the ‘ghost’ of cinema past.
Besides these stories, “Best New Horror”, the aforementioned “The Black Phone”, and “The Last Breath” were solid tales with a lot going for them, but also limitations. Like “The Black Phone”, “Best New Horror” felt very familiar, and predictable. Featuring a writer protagonist also seemed too well worn in this genre of horror, or any. Nonetheless, it’s still an entertaining horror read. “The Last Breath” has great atmosphere and is a fun idea, but falters at the end with predictable inevitability. It’s a case where Hill could have (and probably should have) ended it sooner, leaving the obvious conclusion unspoken and implied alone.
“In the Rundown”, “The Cape”, “The Widow’s Breakfast”, “Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead”, and “My Father’s Mask” all failed to really captivate me, though they had moments of inspired brilliance (“The Cape”) or a fun foundation from horror geekdom (“Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead”).
If you are counting along, that’s fifteen stories, and I mentioned at the start that this a collection of sixteen. Don’t skip the acknowledgements, because Hill places a meta flash fiction within, “Scheherazade’s Typewriter” like a hidden CD bonus track. It’s worth the quick read.
While all the stories of The Black Phone (20th Century Ghosts) may not connect for readers, short horror fiction fans should find several tales within that make it worth reading, particularly when Hill’s general style works for personal tastes. If you only know of Hill vaguely and indirectly through the Blumhouse The Black Phone movie, or another of his numerous TV/film adaptations (and enjoyed any of those) you should definitely give his writing a look.