Saturday, May 14, 2011

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, 2007

The ghost came to his feet, and as he rose, his legs moved out of the sunlight and painted themselves back into being, the long black trouser legs, the sharp crease in his pants. The dead man held his arm out to the side, the palm turned toward the floor, and something fell from the hand, a flat silver pendant, polished to a mirror brightness, attached to a foot of delicate gold chain. No, not a pendulum, but a curved blade of some kind. It was like a dollhouse version of the pendulum in that story by Edgar Allan Poe. The gold chain was connected to a ring around one of his fingers, a wedding ring, and the razor was what he had married. He allowed Jude to look at it for a moment, and then twitched his wrist, a child doing a trick with a yo-yo, and the little curved razor leaped into his hand. --- (page 56)

Heart-Shaped Box is a finely wrought gem of a novel. The dust jacket proclaims it to be a book of spine-tingling horror, and it is, but it's so much more. It features a complex, unusual, incredibly likable protagonist and a surprisingly sensitive and beautifully drawn love story, as well as being highly thrilling and uniquely scary. To top it off, the novel is wrapped up in idiosyncratic, intricate, chilling, funny, occasionally gorgeous prose.

The concept begins with pure simplicity: a ghost is offered for sale on the Internet. Aging heavy-metal rock star Jude Coyne buys it for a joke, only to find the ghost all too real--and now it's out to claim his soul. From here, the plot gently unfolds, twisting, turning and deepening with ever chapter, as Joe Hill cheerfully ignores the constraints of genre and structure. "Original" is a word that gets bandied about a lot in book reviews, but Box is as starkly original as it gets.

I began the novel expecting a traditional ghost story, which follows a fairly simple pattern: Ghost is introduced, ghost haunts main character, scary things happen, ghost is destroyed in deus ex machina ending. There's nothing inherently wrong with this kind of pattern, but it's rarely conducive to a really memorable read. Hill throws the classic pattern (and the much overused single-location trope) out the window. His ghost is more of an aggressive thriller villain than a creepy specter.

It's a poorly kept secret that Joe Hill is the son of horror master Stephen King. Frankly, King hasn't written a novel this good in many years and, despite the shared bloodlines and genre, there are no similarities between the two. Hill's lean, agile, playful, dialogue-heavy style bears no resemblance to King's rambling, galumphing prose. Hill's powers of characterization and sense of humanity far outstrips his father's. King has never created a character as totally believable and multi-dimensional as Judas Coyne.

It's Jude's journey that really elevates the novel. Hill lets him develop slowly, filling in his back story gradually. He goes from being an unlikable antihero to a courageous, flawed, redeemable hero. What a fantastic progression. His relationship with the woman he calls "Georgia" (her real name is Marybeth) is layered and surprisingly sweet. Hill's dialogue in their scenes together is as sharp as Craddock's deadly razor.

Hill, like his father, doesn't focus too much on the how and why of the supernatural world and there are a few plot points that he basically ignores and doesn't explain (say, why Jude's dogs are the only reliable protection against Craddock). A few guidelines to govern the rules of ghosts and hypnotism would have been nice. Still, you can't fault him for originality: you have to love Craddock literally cramming himself down the throat of the man he's possessing.

So what do we have here? A twisty, unpredictable plot, two highly memorable main characters, excellent dialogue, beautiful writing, some true jolts of horror. Box is, on the surface, a simple ghost story, but it's really an exploration of death and redemption and a smart, literate examination of Judas Coyne. A wonderful book on several levels, and especially amazing when you consider that it's only Joe Hill's first novel.

NEXT UP: Lee Child's Bad Luck and Trouble.

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