Four reviews that originally appeared in 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.
THE APPETITE by NICHOLAS ROYLE
Gray Friar Press paperback, 128pp, £8
It’s the 1980s and Britain is hit by a storm of hurricane proportions, with several hundred people going missing, apparently snatched up by the winds. Office worker Simon is going home one day when Sally drops out of the sky and onto him, and he gets her to a hospital. All of the ‘Fallen’ arrive in a similar manner over the course of a few days, and none of them have any memory of what has happened to them. Recovered from her ordeal, Sally gets in contact with Simon and they begin an affair, carrying on even though the pain of deceiving husband Peter, who Sally still loves, is tearing her apart. Meanwhile the world around them appears to be shrinking, a ‘turning in’, though miraculously nobody is hurt by any of the disruption that occurs consequent to this. In some way the fate of our lovers and that of the reality itself have become entwined.
The first section of this novella is introduced with weatherman Michael Fish’s infamous pronouncement concerning the non-appearance of hurricanes. Everyone has their memory of the so called ‘great storm’ of 1987. My own concerns walking down the road to catch a bus that never showed up and having the hat snatched from my head, watching it disappear in an easterly direction. Royle’s characters suffer a somewhat more fanciful fate, and one that is far from convincing, though of course he doesn’t intend us to take these events literally.
I have mixed feelings about The Appetite. Royle writes as well as ever, bringing the affair of the two leads to compelling life, but at the same time it does come over as slightly mundane, a succession of she’s leaving him, she won’t leave him, move and counter move, almost as if the author has a daisy and is tearing off the petals in lieu of concocting a plot. Still, love affairs often do seem mundane to those looking in from the outside. The idea of the world shrinking is much more intriguing and rather well done, with plenty of incidental detail, such as buildings that seem smaller, collapsing architecture, shorter journeys, a whole catalogue of existential claustrophobia. The natural order has been upset and is in need of restoring, though the manner in which this is accomplished struck a somewhat dubious note for me, the hint that some appetites if not properly fed may be routed into destructive channels. It is perhaps best understood as a metaphor for how reality contracts around those in love, eventually opening out when they accept and embrace their condition.
There’s nothing here to seriously dislike; it’s just that for a writer of Nicholas Royle’s calibre it seemed superficial on occasion, more good idea than good story as such. Certainly I enjoyed it, but not quite as much as I expected to.
LOST BOYS by JAMES MILLER
Little Brown paperback, 288pp, £12.99
James Miller is a writer who will be familiar to some of our readers from the early days of this magazine’s predecessor, The Third Alternative, when we published several of his stories. Lost Boys is his first novel and, as you’d perhaps expect given that track record, it’s not a straightforward story.
Timothy Dashwood is the son of an oil industry bigwig, brought back to Britain from Iraq after his father was held for a time by insurgents. The boy misses his former life in an armed compound and cannot fit in at his new school. He dreams of an Arab boy who calls on him to run away, and meanwhile other boys from the school are disappearing, many of them sons of diplomats and industrialists. Finally, when the time is right, Timothy absents himself from the family home and his own life.
In the second section of the book, Timothy’s father Arthur Dashwood plays back the tapes made by an irregular, one might even say psychic, detective employed to find his son when the regular police failed. A picture emerges, from the words of people interviewed by the detective, of fractured family units and a society at war with itself, if only on the emotional plane. Coincident with this the detective reports on the police investigation, gangs of runaways tracked down and broken up by the authorities, and strange threats to his own safety, which end with the detective’s disappearance.
In the final section Arthur embarks on his own search, egged on by e-mails that may or may not be from his son, led into the S&M subculture where his own guilt and feelings of betrayal are punished. The final picture that emerges is of a Children’s Crusade, a revolt against the adult world, with the sons training in military tactics on computer games and hiding in secret camps.
Miller has produced a complex and beautifully written novel, one that embraces a world of influences and makes them its own, from the lost boys of Barrie through Burroughs wild boys, the dystopian mindset of Ballard and, at a stretch, the unique appreciation of the wonder of childhood that is the hallmark of much of Bradbury’s oeuvre. There are overlapping texts here, disparate effects that should not work together but do so marvellously well thanks to Miller’s skill and assured grasp of the material. The hints of a boy’s own adventure filtering into the strange and sinister story of the detective, the sexual excesses of the final passages bleeding out of the emotional demands of a family life rooted in quiet desperation, and echoing yet earlier scenes of torture and betrayal, a recurring theme throughout the book.
Realistic in its framework and set in the world of contemporary geopolitics, Lost Boys intrudes an ‘unreal’ element to question that same world, reifying the child soldiers of global conflict as the first warriors in a Children’s Crusade. The subtext here, reinforced by the surreal streak that permeates the narrative, seems to be that by jettisoning our own innocence and ideals for the sake of profit, adults have also sacrificed the far more precious innocence of their children and a terrible price will need to be paid for that.
Lost Boys is a rich, vibrant and important work from a writer who will be one to watch in the near future. And to think, you probably read him first in The Third Alternative.
THERAPY by SEBASTIAN FITZEK
Pan paperback, 352pp, £6.99
Well-known psychiatrist Viktor Larenz is haunted by a tragedy in his past, the disappearance of his twelve year old daughter Josy, snatched from a doctor’s office where she had gone for treatment of an undiagnosed sickness. No trace has been found of the girl, either by the police or the private detective hired by Larenz. Close to despair he withdraws to a family home on the isolated North Sea island of Parkum, where new hope arrives in the form of beautiful stranger Anna Glass, a writer of children’s book. Anna suffers from a rare form of schizophrenia and claims that all of her characters appear to her in real life, and she has been writing about a girl who sounds just like Josy. Larenz takes on her treatment in an attempt to find out the truth behind her stories, but there is much more to Anna Glass than at first appears to be the case.
This is a clever book, one in which different layers of reality are exposed as the narrative progresses, so that reading it is rather like peeling away the skin of an onion. Unfortunately this makes reviewing a hazardous endeavour, with the chance of giving away a vital plot twist and spoiling things for the reader. The story is intriguing, starting as it does with a terrible event, the disappearance of a child, a fear with which most of us can identify, and then moving further away from reality with each chapter, as Viktor’s world and Anna’s fiction overlap. As the story progresses and events grow increasingly surreal, serious doubts set in about Fitzek’s ability to rein it back in and provide a solid rationale for what is happening. And the trick is that he doesn’t, instead peeling back one of those layers to reveal something else entirely, and then just when we have accepted that he pulls yet another rabbit out of his silk top hat, like a conjuror wanting to bring the curtain down with a final flourish. There’s an element of cheat to this I think, echoes of the old ‘then I woke up and it was all a dream’ gambit that I usually abhor, but here made a lot more credible than is often the case.
Also to Fitzek’s credit he does a superb job of delineating Viktor Larenz’s character, the love and despair of a father dealing with an impossible situation, the dawning horror of the truth of his situation as the psycho-drama unfolds. There is no padding either, with the prose sparse and lean, building up a ferocious pace, and coincidentally giving us little time to consider possible glitches in the story. Those glitches may be a little too much to swallow for some readers when the closing revelations come, but for me I think Fitzek just about managed to pull it off, producing a book that is highly readable and that little bit different from most of what the thriller genre has to offer.