Man, I didn't expect to be jumping into the reviews so early. I thought I had more essays to write, more nonsense to cheerfully babble into the ether, before I got down to the hard task of letting people know my opinions on stuff. But I had a weird week this week, and insomnia came part of the package. At sometime around 5:22AM this morning, I finally finished Joe Hill's debut novel, Heart Shaped Box and I got some thoughts on it I want to share.
I've been really excited about reading this one. It's probably no secret by now that Joe Hill is Stephen King's kid, and while it's not necessarily fair for me as a reader to be bringing expectations to his work based on my experiences as a Constant Reader of his father's books, I'm only human. King had a strong effect on me as a young teenager and I wanted to see what's been distilled into him, and what he's made his own.
By and large, Heart Shaped Box succeeds. Joe Hill's got game, and it's very much his own. Heart Shaped Box passed my two basic tests for genre work: Does it successfully create a strong atmosphere of dread and does the story/characterization stand on it's own without the horrific elements.
I found myself genuinely engaged with the leads. My general problem with most horror fiction is that the characterization tends to be painfully bland: Brooding But Capable Guy With A Dark Past, Plucky Yet Strangely Conservative Girl, Likeable First Victim, Irritating Complication Character The Villain Later Uses Against The Protagonists. Washed up heavy metal icon Judas Coyne, the unfortunate Danny Wooten, and the damaged Georgia are unique creations, their lives framed with tragedy and their dialogue deeply Southern in inflection. Put bluntly, I give a shit about these characters and strong reader identification is much more essential in horror fiction than in horror films.
One thing that I particularly appreciated was the evolution of Jude and Georgia as the story progressed. Judas Coyne is clearly depicted as a man who both carries and welcomes pain into his life, both from his guilt at outliving his bandmates to his intense immersion within his childhood trauma to his constantly rotating harem of damaged goods runaway girlfriends. I really appreciated the fact that the guy Jude is at the end of the story isn't the same selfish, disconnected, emotionally abusive prick that he was at the story, and that the transformation felt natural and not like some I-Have-Seen-The-Light moment. I dug the fact that Georgia (later Marybeth) can start out as a stereotypical shrewish, grating rawk star groupie and become sweet and sad and strong by the end.
As for the ghost Judas foolishly purchases off the interwebs.....ooooh. The ghost of Craddock is one creepy, creepy dude. He creates a very strong presence in the work, and his rage works in very cool, clever ways. He tends to pop up a little bit too often, and the bit about Craddock's spirit using tricks on Jude that he picked up while serving as a psychological warfare officer in 'Nam is kinda goofy, but otherwise I think he's a worthy boogeyman to add to the horror field.
A very intense southern gothic sensibility fills Heart Shaped Box and I dug these elements. The character's melancholy and family strife brought me into their world very effectively.
The story was not perfect, by any sense of the imagination. The story is so lean and so intensely focused on the leads that it feels at times like a drawn out version of a shorter piece. As such, certain passages feel longer than necessary. While I thought the early haunting in the book were more effectively scary, I would have liked to see Jude and Georgia get on the road quicker, if that's where they're truly meant to find salvation.
Jude and Georgia become much more interesting on the road. Unfortunately, putting them on the road eliminates the claustrophobic effect that Craddock's ghost has inside Jude's home. While the lyricism of the Craddock's frequent threatening broadcasts over haunted radios and TVs offers some of the best chills in the book, I felt his vengeful spirit became less threatening as the narrative progressed.
One of the more effective elements of my favorite haunting stories is the idea of characters who have to confront the things from their past as they're fending off the supernatural. Jude's alcoholic, abusive father looms heavily in Jude's characterization, yet the inevitable final meeting between father and son fails to hold much confrontation or catharsis, as the dying man becomes yet another vessel for Craddock to attack Jude. I would have liked to see this scene expanded, especially since Jude's childhood was profoundly affected by the abuse he suffered at the man's hands.
Oh, and a quibbler's note: the definition of "goth" that Hill uses tends to be pretty far away from the Gothic subculture as I've experienced it. Black nail polish and sour faced tales of childhood trauma does not a goth make.
Anyway, give this one a look-see. I dug it for the traditional ghost story elements and the unique and energetic prose.