Monday, May 12, 2008

Books: Ghost on the highway.

The vengeful ghost at the center of Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box isn't the product of a cursed bloodline, a disrespected cemetery, an unfortunately placed Indian burial ground, or any of the many time-tested methods author's deploy for producing spooks. Instead, he's purchased over the Internet. This is, I think, an apt metaphor for Hill's pop culture conscious and leanly modern approach to the age-old traditions of the ghost story: his book is slickly functional, quick, and delivers the goods.

The surly anti-hero of Heart-Shaped Box is Judas Coyne. Judas is a somewhat over-the-hill rock legend. He's living out his post-band years in relative isolation on an upstate New York farm, enjoying the reliable low-yield fame of an icon elder rock statesman and finding physical satisfaction in a steady string of semi-disposable goth nubiles who still seek the orgasmic favors of the failing rock god. His current bedmate is Georgia, a former stripper nearly 30-years Judas's junior. The only other person who shares Judas's bucolic exile is Danny, Judas's sycophantic personal assistant.

One day, Danny receives an unusual email regarding an item up for auction on an eBay-like Internet auction site: a haunted suit. The seller claims that the buyer will get a Western style black suit complete with one ghost. All sales are final. Judas, who collects the creepy detritus of the goth culture that once surrounded him and his band mates (occult books, black magic paraphernalia, a real snuff flick), buys it immediately.

What Judas doesn't know is that the suit is a trap. The suit was sold to him by the sister of a girl named Florida. Florida, nee Anna, was a former groupie who showered Judas with the orgasmic offerings that are the inalienable right of rock stars. When Judas got sick of her mental behavior, he kicked her to the curb and sent her packing. She returned home (to Florida) and, shortly thereafter, killed herself. The sister, vowing revenge, set up Judas to get the ghost. The ghost is the vengeful spirit of Florida's father, a spiritualist and hypnotist who has figured out how to keep his angry soul together after death. Sis and ghost dad have a very personal score to settle with Judas.

After a short build up, Judas's pseudo-family collapses under otherworldly attack and Judas and Georgia hit the road. What follows is a frantic nightmare road-story: Judas and Georgia race to get Florida's sister to call the ghost off, while, relentless and brutal, the ghost of Florida's father gets ever closer.

Hill's debut novel is a shockingly assured performance. His characterizations are economical, but completely effective. Judas is sympathetic, but often a douchebag. Georgia's character starts a cookie-cutter "whore with the heart of gold" stereotype, but is given a depth that makes her something more profound. She reminds me slightly of Angie Dickinson's character Feathers in Hawk's brilliant Rio Bravo: conflicted but strong, good but not innocent. Even bit-part characters, like the brown-nosing Danny, reveal surprising aspects that still feel organic. This attention to detail, the way Hill fleshes out the characters without bogging us down in numbing minutia, is all the more effective for how it weaves into the whole concept of the ghost story. Hill's not so ham-fisted as to make every detail of Judas's backstory relevant to his current conflict, but it is clear that Judas is metaphorically haunted by his past and that his confrontation with the sinister specter that pursues him will also force him to confront how he has contributed to the horror around him.

Hill is a confident storyteller. His pace is quick, but never rushed. He brings a modern and sly sensibility (the characters contact the spirit world through a Oija board and Judas notices that it has "Parker Bros." written on it) to what might, in less competent hands, become a strict exercise in genre-paint-by-numbers. Though he's not reluctant to bring on the gore when he feels it will be effective, Hill gets most of his chills through the skillful creation of surreal imagery. The ghost first appears, for example, as an old man in a dark suit, sitting perfectly still in an antique rocking chair in ill lit hallway of Judas's house. There's no jump-out scares, there's no violent struggle. Just this low key, but clearly out of place figure. Hill remarkably effective with this sort of curious dreadfulness.

The sole complaint I have about the novel has to do with Hill's fidelity to genre trappings. Hill's creativity feels constrained by genre conventions he seems to occasionally go out of his way to honor – as if he didn't want to stray too far off the reservation despite being ready to run. It almost comes too easy to Hill, and as a result, he loses focus and drive near the close. The book ends with some where-are-they-now exposition that almost feels tossed off, as if Hill himself got bored. He doesn't break a sweat and, while you're thoroughly entertained, you feel he could have pushed the envelope. Like Judas's Dodge Charger, it is a nice cruising car, but it's begging to be pushed harder.

But you can't fault a dude for not writing the book he didn't write. As a spookshow thriller, Hill's novel gives all it promises. Heart-Shaped Box, despite its flagging denouement, is a real modern horror classic. It weds old-school horror tropes to a fresh style and makes it look effortless. I can't wait to see what's next.

PS – In accordance with the Joe Hill Review Act of 2006, I am required by law to inform you that Joe Hill is the son of writer Stephen King. So there, I'm compliant.


Anonymous said...

So how does he stack up against ol'e dad, pseudonymously or not.. Old school horror or new franchise ?

CRwM said...

Though I'll probably get my horror-blogging certification taken away, I'm not the biggest King fan. I've always found his books somewhat plodding and padded out. (I do dig his short stories, though.)

By comparison, Hill's book is a downright anorexic 300-odd pages. Where King piles on the detail, Hill holds to the necessary minimum. Where King builds layers of narrative, Hill zips along in a pretty linear fashion.

That said, King's a sort of genre titan. On the basis of a single short story collection and one novel, how do you make a comparison?