Oh bollocks! I’ve run out of road again. Never mind. Here’s a little something for the weekend from Black Static #6:-
HEART-SHAPED BOX by JOE HILL
Gollancz paperback, 406pp, £6.99
Fifty something former rock star Judas Coyne is a self-obsessed hedonist who has the money to indulge his every whim, be it fast cars or sexy women, with each new girlfriend named after a state of the union, so he doesn’t have to keep them straight in his mind or become too attached. Another peccadillo of his and part of Jude’s rock star image is the collecting of macabre objects – a hangman’s noose, a human skull, a witch’s confession, a snuff film – so when the chance to purchase a ghost comes up in an online auction he can’t resist. The seller sends him a heart-shaped box containing an old suit, supposedly that of her deceased stepfather, Craddock McDermott, and Jude soon discovers that this time he may have bitten off more than he can chew. The outré phenomena begin almost immediately after the suit’s arrival – mysterious drops in temperature, the vision of an old man in a chair who may be Craddock, a voice inside his head that urges Jude to kill current squeeze Georgia and then himself. Somebody has Jude in their sights, and it all leads back to the suicide of former girlfriend Alabama. Jude and Georgia take to the road in search of an answer, dogged every step of the way by spectral attacks, with the only hope for Jude to confront the demons of his past.
This book comes with a lot of baggage, hoopla, expectation, what you will. For starters, Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King, so lots of people are curious to see how far the acorn has fallen from the tree, and ready to start crying nepotism if the work doesn’t measure up. For seconds, as far as I can recall it is the first time for a long while in the UK that we’ve had a mass market publication of a first novel by a horror writer, which puts a lot of expectation on Hill’s shoulders from those who want to see this bud as a sign of the horror genre’s revival. And as with other writers before him who’ve made their name with an impressive body of short stories, such as Clive Barker and Poppy Z Brite, there’s the question of whether Hill can deliver the goods at novel length.
So how good is it?
For starters, it has a great opening hook. I remember a story from a few years back about somebody trying to sell a cursed doll on e-Bay, and Hill has lucked onto something similar and made it the jumping off point for his story. It’s a fascinating idea, and one that grips the reader’s imagination from the get go though not quite as original as some would have us believe (the echoes of James’ Casting of the Runes are apparent). From then on we are in safe hands as Hill employs an impressive range of special effects and atmospheric touches to raise the ante for Jude and Georgia, both in their home and on the long road trip at the heart of the book. The story has a strong cinematic feel to it, seen in the fast pacing and the shocking set pieces that punctuate the text, such as when Craddock’s ghost cuts loose at Jude’s family home and possesses his father in the final scenes of the book, and I can easily imagine it being made into a sfx heavy film and doing decent box office.
In Craddock we have a memorable villain, somebody who seems like a hick at first, almost a joke, but becomes much more sinister and significant as Jude digs into his past. There is a chilling back story, the revelation of work in ‘psychological operations’ for the US Army in Vietnam, with a subsequent career as a dowser and mesmerist, and in more recent times the complete dominance of stepdaughter Alabama, who thought Jude would help her but instead just placed him in the path of Craddock’s malice. Hill is excellent at capturing this quality in Craddock, his lazy southern drawl and the words he uses simply oozing menace and vindictiveness. Craddock is ably abetted by other stepdaughter Jessica, and the thing the two have in common is that neither is willing to confront the evil of what they have done, preferring to shift the guilt to Jude and vent their anger on a scapegoat.
In a similar vein, Jude is not really dealing with his past, which is littered with failed relationships; with his former wife and band partners, but the most significant that with his abusive father. He has become a user of other people, a completely egotistical person, seeing everything in terms of his own needs. Part of Jude’s journey to the book’s resolution involves facing his responsibilities and growing emotionally, to the point where he can actually commit to Georgia, a sea change marked by his use of her real name, the outward demonstration that she has become a person to him and not just a convenient bed mate. Strip aside the supernatural elements and what remains is a rite of passage of sorts, though here is where I have one of my few reservations about Heart-Shaped Box, in that what I’d looked forward to as the climax of the book, Jude’s confrontation with his father, is derailed by Craddock’s intervention. That scene was superbly stage managed, as I observed before, but at the same time it felt like a cop out and didn’t provide the closure expected.
So, to repeat myself, how good is Heart-Shaped Box? It’s a very good book but not the great book it’s being touted as in some quarters: it doesn’t have that extra quality that engenders greatness, be it the feeling that you are reading something completely new and original, or a situation that moves you profoundly (and these are qualities Hill’s best stories possess, so we know that greatness is in his grasp). Rather, let’s say it is a supernatural thriller which is well written, superbly paced, convincingly plotted and populated with intriguing characters, a story that will grip you from first word to last, the embodiment of the phrase page turner, and for a first novel that is damned good going.