Book Review: The Black Phone Stories

My copy of the collection, which, the marketing worked! I bought it.

My first takeaway after reading Joe Hill’s short story collection from 2007 (originally titled 20th Century Ghosts), The Black Phone Stories, and I kept thinking it as I was reading, was, Why haven’t I always been doing this?!

That is, why is Hill’s collection of short stories only the second time I’ve read a short story collection? My first one was a couple years ago when I was binging the Jack Reacher series to catch back up, so I included the short story collection, No Middle Name.

There’s something lovely and delightful about diving into, and getting lost within, a 30-ish-page story and then coming back up for air, and diving right back in; rinse and repeat across Hill’s 15 stories (plus the secret one tucked into the Acknowledgements at the end!).

Obviously, the publisher re-released and re-named the collection to coincide with the film adaptation of one of the stories, “The Black Phone,” coming out in June via Blumhouse and starring Ethan Hawke. And that’s smart marketing because that’s why I picked up the book at my local grocery store! I wanted to read, “The Black Phone,” ahead of the film’s release.

I have read one other Joe Hill book, the first book I read last year, The Heart-Shaped Box. Interestingly, I said that story should have been a short story because Hill ran out of steam with what I thought was a killer premise. And I think after reading this collection of short stories, that opinion holds up well: Hill seems to play better within a smaller sandbox.

That said, let me go ahead and get the one negative out of the way, which might surprise you because it surprised me! As I said, I was most looking forward to reading, “The Black Phone,” and I have to say, it is the most disappointing short story of the book! Not even relative to my own expectations. Compared to the other short stories on offer, it’s the weakest of the 16.

Presented about half-way through the collection, the story is about a kid who gets kidnapped by the “Grabber,” a local serial killer, and ends up in a basement inexplicably with a telephone (but it’s disconnected). I did like the character kidnapped, a 13-year-old named Finney, because he was resourceful and kept trying to plot his escape. As luck would have it, the black phone did “work” inasmuch as the Grabber’s past victims rang in to offer Finney a word of encouragement that “today” was the day to escape the Grabber.

I should say, the story is weak only insofar as I wanted more! It wasn’t bad writing by any means. Which I know that complaint also goes against exactly what I’ve introduced so far, — that Hill operates best at shorter lengths — but at 30 pages, it somehow felt exceedingly short and unfinished compared to the other self-contained stories. All of the others felt done when I reached the ending. “The Black Phone” did not. Heck, even the premise of the black phone being a ghost phone of sorts didn’t get mined nearly as much as I expected. And for once, I can say that the film adaptation has a better idea, as far as the trailer alludes to, than the book: The physical manifestation of the Grabber. In the book, he’s depicted as absurdly obese, which I don’t think fits the vibe of a serial killer, to be honest! I know that’s a Bundyified way of thinking about serial killers, but there aren’t that many absurdly obese serial killers!

Anyhow, I’m not sure if an author sets out to have overarching themes for a short story collection or that I’ve merely attributed a few thematic threads that run through most of the stories, but what stood out to me was:

  • Most of the main characters in the short stories are the misfits and outcasts of society, wronged by someone or something, and in many cases, they are in conflict with their father either directly or indirectly (in the sense that the father is dead and that death lingers over the present). Sometimes this plays out in a rather sweet way, like, “Pop Art,” the strongest of the short stories and, “Better Than Home,” and sometimes this plays out in sinister ways like the surprise ending to, “The Cape.” And sometimes it play out in such unexpected, Kafka-like ways, as in, “You Will Hear the Locust Sing,” that it made for some of the most intriguingly weird reading of the whole collection.
  • To the latter, that’s another sort of running element throughout the collection: Is magical realism befitting here? Supernatural doesn’t quite … fit (despite the collection previously being titled, 20th Century Ghosts). If you look at Wikipedia, magic realism is defined as a “20th-century style of fiction.” So, that seems to fit. Like in the aforementioned, “Pop Art,” “The Cape,” “You Will Heart the Locust Sing,” as well as, “Dead-Wood,” and, “Voluntary Committal,” Hill plays with magical and/or fantastical elements within a seemingly realistic setting. I quite enjoyed that juxtaposition. I would love to see, “Voluntary Committal,” mined for an adaptation. There’s a lot you can do there. Sort of a, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but through the prism of Stephen King (sorry for making that analogy, Hill).
  • There’s certainly a tenderness and an appreciation for horror (both movies and books) throughout the collection, but most poignantly in, “20th Century Ghost,” where a theater owner is trying to outrace time creeping up on the old school style of theater and save a ghost who dwells within, obsessed with seeing the end of, The Wizard of Oz; or the first story of the collection, “Best New Horror,” about a horror anthology editor who has become jaded by the whole thing and then is suddenly reinvigorated by a new, controversial horror short story. And even, “Abraham’s Boys,” feels like a homage to horror in the sense of being a classic vampire tale (I like to interpret it, though, as the father being insane and vampires not actually existing, only him thinking they do and he’s been driving wooden stakes into the hearts of innocent people and stuffing their corpse mouths with garlic for no good reason).
  • There’s also non-horror involved in this collection for those of you not as into horror. “Better Than Home,” is a lovely, dare I even say “sweet,” story of father-and-son centered around baseball and patience and understanding of each other in a way the mom doesn’t quite get. Arguably, “Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead,” could fit into the aforementioned categories (the main character being a misfit because he’s a bit of a jerk, but he’s a jerk because he fell flat on his face chasing his dreams; and it being a homage to horror, as it takes place on the set of George A. Romero’s filming of Dawn of the Dead), but is simply about two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, who happen to meet up again while caked in legend makeup artist, Tom Savini’s, zombie garb.

My second-favorite of the bunch was, “Last Breath,” which doesn’t fit neatly into my thematic threads, but was so quirky, creative and interesting: What if some eccentric doctor could capture the dying last breath’s of people and then what if that doctor displayed them in a museum for you to “listen” to them? To listen to what the silence tells you? So good as a short story and as philosophical musings.

Again, though, my favorite was, “Pop Art,” the strongest of the collection and quite frankly, the best short story I can recall reading in quite some time. The story centers around a kid who befriends a plastic inflatable kid named Art. And at one point, this exchange occurs:

Art’s mom is worried about her son’s friend (our narrator), who didn’t have a healthy outlet for his creative self. She said he needed something to feed his inner self.

“I didn’t know the inner me was hungry,” he says.

“That’s because it already starved to death,” Art responds (in crayon on a piece of paper because that’s how he communicates).

That. If there is one way to describe the thematic thrust of this collection of short stories it comes from a plastic inflatable friend named Art.

If that line doesn’t get you to seek out this collection, then nothing will.

As Christopher Golden, who wrote the introduction to the collection said, “Pop Art” is transcendent. I will be thinking about that little story for a long time to come.

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