Stephen King has inspired many a writer to pick up a pen (or keyboard) and emulate his style. So it’s only fair his son, Joe Hill, is afforded a concession for attempting this. What is also understandable is Hill’s desire to tell an old fashioned horror tale, the type that are no longer attempted. But can the son recapture the former glory of a style often deemed dated?
The quick and simple answer is: yes, he certainly can. A glance at the plot summary makes Heart-Shaped Box sound like it shouldn’t work. And it really shouldn’t. Nowadays most authors or filmmakers opt for some psychological element to build the probability or tension. The idea of a ghost haunting a protagonist should sound too simple.
This should be a nailed on fact when the appearance of the ghost is because said protagonist, aging rock star, Judas Coyne, buys a “haunted” suit from an auction website. And there is little build-up to the spirit making himself known to Judas. This quick reveal means the reader just has to accept it. There’s never a hint Judas could be going crazy. The ghost exists. Accept it, and accept his interaction with the living world is prevalent pretty fast.
Such is the pace of purchase to dilemma, after a third of the book you begin to wonder just how Hill will manage to fill the remaining pages. The ghost, who is revealed as Craddock McDermott, the deceased father of Jude’s former live-in lover who killed herself, appears relentless and unstoppable.
It’s only Coyne’s two German Shepherds (cutely named Angus and Bon in honour of the AC/DC legends) that give him some rest bite from the ghostly attacks.
During this quick start the main characters are coloured in fast. Coyne is the rocker with an unhealthy obsession with the occult and things that are distasteful (his ex-wife left him after coming across a snuff video he owns). But he doesn’t necessarily believe in the dark matters he delves into, it just accompanies a persona he portrays.
His women are young and last no longer than a year. He names them from the state they originated and that’s about as far as he goes into their actual lives.
It’s with current girlfriend, Georgia, who he mounts an escape with which forms into a plan for freedom. It’s in this phase the past and current events intertwine and the true nature of McDermott is revealed while Judas is made to face real, personal demons.
We also learn more about Georgia, the young goth who refuses to be just another conquest Coyne will discard, showing loyalty equal to Angus and Bon’s. She appears unafraid and beyond her years. It enables an alternative take on a love story to develop as they suffer through the incidents that follow.
This female connection also links Coyne’s emotions to the dead daughter that Craddock seeks vengeance for. She was always Florida, the girl that asked too many questions and suffered from bouts of severe depression. His journey to rediscover her is what moves the tale along.
The novel is too gripping to slip into the parody it had the potential to be and Hill doesn’t take too many liberties with the paranormal to get himself out of tight spots. Even when it’s obvious where the story is heading, it’s still a real page turner – surely the sign of a good story.
The comparisons with his father will be an annoyance to Hill (hence his choice of surname) but rather than ignore them and make an elephant in the room, it’s best to address them head-on. Heart-Shaped Box proves he deserves to be judged by his own high standards.
If King was still writing classic horror it may have taken this feel, but one suspects the baton has been passed from one generation to the next, and Hill’s interpretation has shown the old master a few tricks.
And it works so well because he remembered his father’s rule to make the genre work…