Saturday, June 19, 2010

Joe Hill, Heart-Shaped Box (& “Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead”)

  • Heart-Shaped Box, NY: William Morrow & London: Gollancz, 2007.
  • “Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead,” Postscripts, Autumn 2005; reprinted in 20th Century Ghosts, William Morrow & HarperCollins, October 2007; The Living Dead, edited by John Joseph Adams, San Francisco: Night Shade Books, 2008; The Dead that Walk: Flesh-Eating Stories, edited by Stephen Jones, London: Ulysses Press, December 2009.
  • Rating: Heart-Shaped Box 4/10; Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead” 7/10.

I realize that this review doesn't fit in with the theme of "Casual Debris," but I've been reading horror fiction lately, trying to understand the craft, and have so much to say about writing in general with this novel, that a full-length review just spilled out when I wanted only a brief review to post on Goodreads.
Heart-Shaped Box should have been a novella.

Joe Hill’s debut novel deals with Jude Coyne, a self-interested burnt-out rock star who purchases a ghost off the internet. This transaction results in a series of events that forces Coyne to take responsibility for his past actions, and allows him the opportunity to escape his rut and build a foundation for a strong future. Hill tries to build a character-heavy horror novel, but the result is uneven, as ghost story and character examination often exist on separate planes, never truly fusing into a single, solid work. Beginning as an interesting horror mystery, the novel soon turns into a road trip as dreary as its dusty landscape (and that drab, uninteresting cover by William Morrow, above; the Gollancz cover below is far superior in both concept and finish). Along with two guardian dogs, Jude and his lover, former stripper Marybeth, drive to each of their respective childhood homes to put rest to both figurative and actual ghosts from the past. (With bought ghost in pursuit, though most of the time you wouldn’t know it.)
Not much is achieved at Marybeth’s grandmother’s home, just a lost little girl and a tiresome Ouija board. Excitement abounds, however, when the group arrives at the former home of their ghost pursuer, when once again we have a horror thriller on our hands. The real disappointment comes at the end of the road, the arrival at Jude’s old homestead. What begins as a promising sequence with a strong character in Arlene Wade, Jude’s dad’s nurse, and a sickly and dying father who may or may not see and speak, ends up as a weak denouement for the novel as a whole. Hill had a great opportunity to achieve something of a study of Jude’s character in relation to his estranged father, but sadly all form of reunion is avoided (by author, not character). I wouldn’t want nor expect a heart-felt moment of forgiveness, not remotely possible for these two characters, but I would like something to happen between the two, some element of conflict, especially since this is supposed to be a mainstream horror novel driven by character. What better horror than to be forced to confront the father you've been running from all your life, and what a great contrast Hill could have built between disposed father and purchased ghost? But as I mention above, once the horror enters the pages, notions of character flip away, and since we are nearing page three hundred and fifty, what better time to have a climax than now?
Joe Hill evidently struggled with this book. There a long list of names he feels he must thank at the end, people who have evidently read various drafts in order to help the work along, and perhaps the novel does suffer from too much feedback and input, too many cooks in the writer's kitchen (not to mention a few sous-chefs and some big guy with a deep fryer). Hill does not come across as a confident writer. He has the unfortunate habit of over-explaining characters’ motives, and not trusting your readers’ understanding of your work reveals an author’s lack of trust in his own writing skills. This occurs frequently at the beginning of the novel, and once glaringly at the end, when Jude charitably slips some money into someone’s backpack. Since I included the adverb “charitably” I do not need to expand by adding a phrase at the end of that sentence for clarification, something along the lines of “in order to help her out because she was struggling and he sympathized with her unfortunate situation.” An exaggeration of what Hill does, but a truly aggravating tic. Jude Coyne can’t seem to lift a hand without some narratorial comment which should have been stricken by a good editor, let alone a capable author. Such tics tear readers away from the text rather than into a greater understanding of the protagonist’s motives.
I decided to read this novel after having read one of Hill’s short stories, “Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead,” the story of former lovers who get reacquainted while working as zombie extras on the set of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. I enjoyed that story because of the strong dynamic between the characters, the strong dialogue and interesting set-up. It is an ambiguous little story with a touch of comedy that comes together quite nicely. There is no horror, and the behind the scenes working with Romero and crew do not detract from the character elements of the piece. Heart-Shaped Box was perhaps an attempt at re-creating the effects of that short story, but unfortunately it does not work. Had my name appeared in Hill’s acknowledgements I would have been the one to suggest an eighty page novella, a shortened beginning, eliminating the road trip and making something of the final sequence rather than just a far-fetched (and admittedly silly) climax.
What is ironic is that what I enjoyed about the short story did not work in the novel, and what I enjoyed of the novel did not even exist in the short story. The story is a character study with implied horror, and I liked the characters and was interested in their situation. With the novel I did not care too much about character but enjoyed reading the tense horror, for the most part. I liked the mysterious ghost in the beginning, and the tense moment in the middle that I allude to above was well crafted, though another scene at a roadside diner and the climax were so poor that they were near comical. These two moments were poor due to the situation and not necessarily the writing, as though Hill is trying hard to be original and ends up becoming silly. Moreover, that razor that the ghost wields menacingly, but never actually does anything with, is superfluous and trite, a sadly desperate and misguided attempt to embellish the ghost with some horror, when its mysteriousness was already working quite well.
Heart-Shaped Box is certainly not a bad novel. I was interested enough to finish it and there were some good, tense moments. But it is also not a good novel. It is too ordinary, too conventional and mainstream to hang above the other multitude of ordinary, conventional and mainstream suspense novels. I do appreciate Hill’s attempt at creating a character-driven ghost story, but perhaps it is too ambitious a project for him at this stage of his writing. Jude Coyne is also not a character I would become terribly attached to. For one thing I had a lot of trouble seeing the man. I mean actually visually seeing him in my mind’s eye. He was always kind of blurry. Marybeth and the other women moulded into one, and while that was the point, to a certain extent, I did not like the effect; it was just too dehumanizing for the female characters. I did like the ghost at the beginning of the novel and some minor characters, like Jude’s agent and the lawyer who appears briefly at the all-too-extended, post-climactic, seemingly never-ending character resolution sequence. (A sequence even worse than that last sentence, but i digress.)
There is a lot more I can say but I have run out of steam. I'm also worried this entire review has been a series of digressions, or at least laden with them.
Despite these clear writing difficulties Hill is not a bad writer (he is no David Shobin). I will likely read his latest, Horns, and I do own a copy of 20th Century Ghosts which I am looking forward to, on the strength of "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead."

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