Friday, January 26, 2007

Review: Heart-Shaped Box

I have such mixed feelings about horror fiction lately. At its core it sets out to mine the dark corners of our psyche, to bring those inner terrors to life on the page. When it's done well it not only scares the hell out of you it also digs into deeper meanings of character that explain why something scares us so much. Trouble is, most horror writers seemed bent on using cheap shock tactics or gross out tricks; it might read well the first time but it's not enough to hold up to serious thought or second readings.

Not so with Joe Hill and his first novel Heart Shaped Box.

Aging rock star Judas Coyne is a collector of bizarre and macabre artifacts: a used hangman's noose, a snuff film, rare books on witchcraft and anything and everything in-between. When he purchases a suit billed through an online auction as the haunted clothes of a recently deceased man, Coyne finds much more than he bargained for. Everywhere Coyne looks he sees the twisted spirit of an old and evil man following him, laughing at him and dangling a deadly razor on a chain. Coyne soon learns the suit belonged to Craddock McDermott, the stepfather of a former lover who committed suicide shortly after Coyne tossed her out of his life. McDermott, a professional hypnotist prior to his death, swore on his deathbed to destroy Coyne's rock star life of self-indulgence to avenge the death of his step-daughter.

There are some really creepy moments in this novel, moments when things seem so out of control you don't know if Coyne will survive or end up as a soul damned by his own past. Hill has real a skill with the pyrotechnics of a horrifying ghost story, but he knows how to use it sparingly to really build suspense throughout the book. And like all good ghost stories, Hill also crafts a deftly plotted mystery as the true motivations and powers of McDermott unfold. As we learn more about the ghost of McDermott---and how ghosts work in Hill's universe---we also learn a lot about Coyne. We learn the truth behind his loose attitude towards women, about the love he holds for his dogs, and the hatred he holds for his own father. These are done not as simple character development but to show us pieces of Coyne that prove vital to his struggle against the spirit world.

I've never heard of Hill before, but he's got two Bram Stoker awards under his belt for his short fiction. I was first worried that Heart Shaped Box would be a quirky concept that didn't live up to its own ideas, but the depth of character hidden in the dark shadows of both Coyne and McDermott lift what could otherwise be a formula supernatural thriller to a fairly impressive and fun first novel.


1 comment:

John said...

I'm really looking forward to read this novel.

Perhaps you've never heard about Joe Hill before and it's because he's really Joe King, Stephen King's son.

Sounds like it's definitely worth it, according to your review. Sweet.