Joe Hill is the most promising new horror writer on the horizon. His first book, a collection of short stories called 20th Century Ghosts (2007). It was a revelation: quirky, brilliant and scary. I gave it a rave review when I first read it, and I still return to those stories every now and then just to take pleasure in seeing how Hill pulls it off.
Joe Hill’s first novel, Heart-Shaped Box (2007), fulfills the promise of those short stories. It contains enough change-ups, chases, oddities and horrific images to keep any seasoned horror reader in goosebumps. Far more accomplished than most first novels, Heart-Shaped Box is the best kind of scary pleasure.
Hill’s hero — or his antihero, depending on how you look at it — is Judas Coyne, an aging death-metal rocker. He has modeled himself around his stage persona, it seems, posing as a foul-mouthed son of a bitch who takes advantage of the pretty and totally messed-up young women who are attracted to his music. Just to add some spice, he has the repulsive hobby of collecting grotesqueries: the skull of a peasant who had been trepanned in the sixteenth century to let demons out, a noose used to hang a man in the nineteenth century, even a genuine snuff film. His hobby makes him the perfect mark when an email from an auction site offers a ghost for sale. He immediately snatches it up, without a thought as to what owning a ghost would actually mean. But then, he assumes it’s really nothing more than a dead man’s suit with an odd reputation.
Jude is surprised, then, to find that the idea of donning the suit, or seeing his live-in Goth girl (called Georgia because that’s the state she’s from) in it, deeply repulses him. He’s taken aback at his own disgust, as he’s made a living out of the disgusting for 30 years. But revulsion is only the beginning.
It turns out that Jude really has bought a ghost. A real, live, dead ghost. And the ghost is malevolent, seeking revenge for the death of someone Jude once knew. That someone loved him, and he rejected her, and the ghost is angry. Soon Jude is running for his life, trying to outrun the ghost by tracking it to its source, while he and Georgia accumulate both physical and psychic injuries. And he’s running, too, from his own childhood, his own adulthood, his own sins. The tale begins to twist under one’s eyes like a snake, shiny and dangerous, very possibly sufficient to keep the reader awake at night. Or at least until the last page is turned.
Heart-Shaped Box does not contain much of the wild experimentation and newness that characterized 20th Century Ghosts. This is not a fault in the novel, however. To the contrary, it is refreshing to read a good, solid ghost story. It is thrilling to follow this rollercoaster, one with unexpected drops and odd, wild turns. The writing is crisp and clean, the characters sharply delineated. Clear your calendar for a day to read this one — and do so with the lights on.
I should note what is now an open secret: Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King. I only mention this to say that Hill is not King, but his own man. While one can see the influence of the father on the son, it is no more than one would expect King to have had on any writer entering the horror field after growing up on King’s novels. This book is entirely Joe Hill’s. And it’s good.
This is an amazing first novel. There’s no denying that Heart-Shaped Box is a horror story — it’s got ghosts and gore and its share of creepiness — but at its bloody and cold heart, this is a terrific character study that effectively blends the psychological and physical elements of horror. Honestly, Joe Hill explores the aspects of internal demons that make his father, Stephen King, so wonderful to read.
It’s the deep and true psychological exploration that keeps pulling me back to the horror genre, and what makes Heart-Shaped Box so good. The intense internal discovery of one’s past, present and potential future. Sometimes the frightening elements of oneself manifest in the physical world, but almost always they are generated by the internal self.
Hill’s prose is excellent, story pacing terrific, and he demonstrates in his first novel that he knows how to build characters. All this combined puts on display Hill’s understanding of the human character, and his ability to tap into the inner human psyche.
Hill’s lead in Heart-Shaped Box is aging hard rock icon Judas Coyne. He’s got a bundle of boyhood trauma which compounds as Coyne runs through young girlfriend after young girlfriend. When one ends up committing suicide, his haunted past starts to catch up with him.
In an early scene, while facing the ghost of his ex’s step-father, he’s forced to consider: “…maybe ghosts always haunted minds, not places. If he wanted to take a shot at it, he’d have to turn the barrel against his own temple.”
In the horror genre, ghosts can be real and can come from one’s past. But it’s the ghosts of the mind that are the kind that never go completely away. I wouldn’t consider this book a ‘fright-fest,’ but it’s deep, literary and very memorable. I highly recommend it.
I heard an interview with Joe Hill a year or so ago on Book Radio of Sirius/XM satellite radio. It was a very interesting interview and this book sound very intriguing.
Thanks, Greg. I actually thought 20th Century Ghosts — his collection of short stories — was even better. Like his father, I prefer his work at shorter length! Oh, and his graphic novel, Locke & Key, is quite good, too.