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.

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