Saturday, June 19, 2010

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

Hill, Joe. Heart-Shaped Box. NY: William Morrow, 2007
______. Heart-Shaped Box. London: Gollancz, 2007.

Hill, Joe. “Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead.” Postscripts Autumn 2005
______. 20th Century Ghosts, NY: William Morrow, October 2007
______. The Living Dead. Ed. John Joseph Adams. San Francisco: Night Shade Books, 2008
______. The Dead that Walk: Flesh-Eating Stories. Ed. Stephen Jones. London: Ulysses Press, December 2009.

Ratings: Heart-Shaped Box   4/10
               "Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead”   7/10


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 some 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. Along with two guardian dogs, Jude and his lover, former stripper Marybeth, drive to each of their respective childhood homes to put to rest 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. 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 are flung aside, 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 is a long list of names he feels he must thank at the end, people who have read various drafts in order to help the work along, and perhaps the novel 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 dude with a deep fryer). Hill does at times come across as  lacking confidence. He has the unfortunate habit of over-explaining characters’ motives rather than allowing the reader to gather that information through characterization, action, dialogue and all those other writerly tropes. 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." Jude Coyne can’t seem to lift a hand without some narratorial comment which should have been stricken.

I decided to read this novel after having read one of Hill’s short stories, “Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead.” The story tells of former lovers who get reacquainted while working as zombie extras on the set of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. I enjoyed the 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 actual horror involved, 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.

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 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 much about the characters but enjoyed the tension, 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 do not work for me, primarily due to the situation and not the actual writing. It reads as though Hill is trying so hard to be original that he ends up being silly. Moreover, that razor that the ghost wields menacingly, but never actually does anything with, is superfluous and trite, an attempt to embellish the ghost with some horror when its mysteriousness alone was working quite well.

Heart-Shaped Box is certainly not a bad novel. I was interested enough to finish it and I will reiterate that it contains 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 genuinely appreciate Hill's attempt at creating a character-driven ghost story. I was simply unable to get attached to Jude Coyne, while the women all molded into one, and though that was the point, to a certain extent, I did not like the effect; it was just too dehumanizing. 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.

Despite these 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."

Note: I do wonder if the name Jude Coyne is a nod to John Coyne.

*meaning he is not as bad as Shobin. I need to clarify since a reader misunderstood and was as a result confused by my review of the The Unborn.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

David Shobin, The Unborn (1981)

Shobin, David. The Unborn. NY: Simon & Schuster, January 1981
______. The Unborn. Cosmopolitan Magazine (serialized). March 1981.
______. The Unborn. NY: Bantam Books, January 1982.

The Unborn at Goodreads
The Unborn at IBList

Rating: 4/10

The Unborn is a standard suspense/horror novel, lacking in suspense and devoid of horror. At times it reads like a trite medical romance, though I mostly enjoyed its elements of technological parody. Unintentional, of course.

The plot deals with a pregnant woman taking part in a medical sleep study, during which the foetus begins to communicate with the medical centre's super computer. An interesting, far-fetched idea.

Author David Shobin is himself an obstetrician and gynaecologist still practicing in New York (as of the writing this articles publication, June 2010). The Unborn, his first
novel, utilizes a fair amount of medical knowledge to narrate its story. While Shobin's knowledge certainly adds to the somewhat thin plot and does help to ground the far-fetched premise, I kept wondering how a sleep-study researcher knew so much about obstetrics, including obscure bits of information related to pregnancy and gynaecology. Is the smart, dashing and sensitive hero of the novel the author in disguise? Or perhaps, while the foetus was communicating with the super-computer, the doctor was in tune with the narrator; a more frightening prospect and a neat idea for a future Shobin novel.

The unusual premise and medical slant help to save an otherwise bland novel. The writing, characters and plot are weak, and though it is a fast read, a third of the 301 pages could easily have been shaved off. Shobin spends far too much time in the first eighty pages delineating these all-too-familiar characters. Samantha ("Sam"), the pregnant woman and Jon, her sleep-study doctor, are both highly intelligent, exceptionally good-looking and hyper understanding of each other. If not convinced of these qualities, rest assured that the author will not hesitate in reminding his readers just how intelligent and good looking these two are. The two fall in love, which is evidently what good-looking people do, and unfortunately they must prove th
eir love again and again at the expense of the reader.

The good doctor has an older, maternal assistant who helps him professionally and socially, and cares about Sam as much as he does. The minor characters, and there are very few, are stock and impossible to tell apart. The computer, sadly, does not act as a character, but as a machine. Shobin had the opportunity to create a creepy menace but avoids it altogether, though at times Sam's foetus does come across in a nice, eerie light.

The writing is
weak, but I suppose passable for a doctor trying to write his first novel. The sex is laughable and Shobin seems quite taken by Sam's breasts, though I suppose the attention he lavishes on them might be an attempt at enhancing the focus on maternity. Dialogue is paint-by-numbers and plot is almost non-existent while scenes are quite repetitive. The reader knows well in advance what is happening, so there is no suspense for us (though in abundance for the doctor and his assistant) until about page 200 or so. What kept me reading was wanting to know what will the foetus turn out to be? Freak, innocent child or Damien? I give Shobin credit for not overdoing this in the course of the read, since some authors might find it tempting to fill reams of pages wondering what freakish being resides in the pregnant woman's abdomen to the point that the reader will get fed up and no longer care. I will peculate that Dr. Shobin, during his career, has developed a sensitive view of women in their pregnancy, and I applaud his sensitive approach to what could easily have been a juvenile speculation. Hence little time is spent on such musings, with the occasional mutter from Sam, so that the reader's own imagination can wander at will.

The Unborn was published in 1981, and social and gender roles come across awkward and self-conscious, with the good doctor clearly acknowledging that abortion is the woman's choice. Shobin wanted to make his doctor the well-rounded yet perfect modern male, who is sickened when he feels used by sex and all-understanding of women's lib. Modern at the time perhaps, but a little contrived and comical today.

Moreover, the computers are clunky machines of the past. I mention above that Shobin missed an opportunity in creating a menacing, life-like computer, but in reality this machine may have appeared more frightening in the dark ages of the early '80s. It is indeed 1981, and these massive data banks and "minicomputers" are hilarious. Have a look at Shobin's description of the precursor to the home computer:

"The minicomputer was a marvel of electronic wizardry and mechanical miniaturization... A product of advances in quartz and gold microcircuitry, the entire unit was twelve inches high and one yard wide, with a separate typewriter console for programming."

Not to mention a printer that filled up a closet and spat out folded reams of paper. Of course our brave doctor is also somewhat of a technical expert and manages to cross-wire his minicomputer with that of the medical centre's highly prized and tightly secured, multi-million dollar super computer.

I'm not sure what to make of the 1981 cover pictured at the top, but that it seems to beg for a sequel. As expected, Sam doesn't go into labour until the last few pages so there is no glowing baby in a crib. The 1982 paperback is identical but for a brief tag line below the title: "Before the baby cries you will scream." Whatever that means. I understand that labour and often pregnancy can be painful, so a scream or two is not unnatural. The cover on the left is by Pan, from 1982, and the one on the right is a Dutch translation. I am somewhat confused about the concept of glowing babies, or a glowing foetus. The woman on the Dutch edition cover looks nothing like our darling American Sam; in fact, the woman on the cover doesn't look at all pregnant. She looks like a healthy woman lying in bed and clasping an evidently scalding crystal of some kind. There are two things I like about this edition: the wonderfully appropriate dated technology hard at work behind her (is that a Geiger counter resting on her left beside the pillow? Is that crystal radioactive?), and I love the letter O in the title (take a closer look).

But I believe I have nit-picked enough about this novel and it is time to set my typewriter console aside, rest my minicomputer and pick up a better book.

Friday, June 4, 2010

John Coyne, The Legacy (1979)

Coyne, John. The Legacy. New York: Berkley, 1979.

The Legacy at Goodreads
The Legacy at IBList
Rating: 7/10

Former horror and current golf author John Coyne wrote The Legacy early in his fiction writing career, and it helped establish him among the ranks of best-selling young American horror authors of the period, such as Peter Straub and Stephen King. While the novel was a best-seller and Coyne did pen some other successful horror books, most notably Hobgoblin (1981), he never reached the heights of Straub or King and his name is not well recognized today. Though regarded generally as a good craftsman who has written horror, literary fiction and a number of non-fiction works, as well as a marketable commodity, it is odd that Coyne did not reach greater heights, nor maintained the height he did achieve. In his introduction to the 1983 anthology The Dodd Mead Gallery of Horror, writer and editor Charles L. Grant honours Coyne by referring to him as "one of the most gifted and literary writers."

The Legacy is a novelization of the 1978 movie of the same title, directed by Richard Marquand (best known for Return of the Jedi) with story and screenplay by Jimmy Sangster. It tells the story of six people invited to Ravenhurst, a remote estate in rural England. They are brought together by the mysterious and wealthy Jason Mountolive, yet while five are familiar with Mountolive and the reason for the gathering, the novel's protagonist, Maggie Walsh, along with her partner Pete Danner, believe they have been recruited from California for an architectural project. The story is a combination of murder mystery along the lines of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, and dark demonic fantasy.

Though it is lacking in some areas, the book is an enjoyable and quick read. The writing is strong and suits the work: it is straightforward and clear, nothing intrusive, simply well constructed prose that allows character, setting and plot to function on their own merits. The characters are recognizable caricatures, but so well delineated that their stock qualities work nicely with the story. The dialogue is strong and the interaction between the diverse members of the gathering worked particularly well. The setting is so clearly rendered that while reading the entire landscape appeared before my mind's eye. There are some grey areas in plotting and resolution, but personally I like my fiction with a little grey. Everything spelled out would eliminate much of the story's required obscurity. Of course many of these elements are likely the result of having to follow the film's screenplay, but regardless are a part of the completed text.

My only real problem with the book is the climax (some spoilers ahead).
 I did not care for the final showdown with Jacques Grandier. In fact, I did not fully understand it. Grandier was not behind the killings at Mountolive's estate, and I figure he is attacking Maggie and Pete because he believes they are the one's responsible for the recent deaths, and hence believes he is defending himself. Yet there was something odd about Grandier walking the plank of the roof (so to speak) in that I could not imagine him being so lithe and athletic. It does not help that someone who was such a great marksman with bow and arrow cannot shoot a couple of people with a shotgun. Perhaps because the book is so visual yet we are never given a clear image of Grandier on the rooftop that the action appears to be playing out in a kind of fog.

The resolution is fairly well anticipated but this does not weaken the reading. The reader has by now pieced the somewhat grey pieces together and understands what will happen to Maggie, though Pete's fate (a minor point) remains unclear until the very end.

The horror elements are good, with some truly creepy moments. There are some standard, all-too-familiar moments alongside the original creepiness. The book manages to fuse the Gothic clichés with the modern elements, just as it fuses classic rural England with the hip 1979 yuppie Californian couple. In fact there is a nice blend of the classic mystery and Gothic with the rising modern horror genre of the 1970s & 1980s. Perhaps if this book were published only a few years earlier, before Coyne's contemporaries were able to steal the market and establish themselves as horror's forerunners, Coyne would have met with greater success and left a stronger... legacy.

I have not com
e across the 1978 movie version of The Legacy and have not heard of it before finding the book, despite a somewhat familiar cast including Katherine Ross, Sam Elliott and Who founder Roger Daltry, and the fact that I do enjoy a good horror movie. Reviews I have managed to find seem unanimous in preferring the novelization over the movie, and in fact while the book was a best-seller the movie essentially flopped. If I do get the opportunity to see the film I will add an addendum here, but I won't be rushing around to search for it. Instead I will pick up a copy of Hobgoblin, Coyne's most famous horror novel and the only one available at my local library.

I came across this book in a discard bin at a book fair and promptly saved it, and other mass market paperbacks, from the fate of being recycled (or nabbed up by someone else). It was my first time encountering the name John Coyne, and it took me a few years to actually read it, mostly because of that cheesy cover (I have the first Berkley edition from 1979, the smaller cover shot just above; the larger one at the top is of a 1980 reprinting). The cover features the white cat that appears at ominous moments in the book and no doubt the movie as well, and the gnarled hand of Jason Mountolive. I started reading it because the synopsis at the back caught my eye; I've always been a sucker for small groups of people disappearing or dying off one by one, everything from
And There Were None to movies like The Thing and Alien. While the cover nearly had me placing the book in a donation bin, the back cover saved it and I think I will hang onto this copy for the time being.

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