Sunday, June 17, 2007

Heart Shaped Box

by Joe Hill

I picked this one up because of a rave review by Neil Gaiman. Once again however it seems that an artist I love has tastes that both bewilder and disappoint me.

For those who are in the dark, Joe Hill is the pen name of horror writer Joseph Hillstrom King, whose reason for using a pseudonym is obvious once you know that his father's name is Stephen. As it happens it's almost comical how much Hill's style resembles his father's. Sure he's sexed things up with a lot of modern rock references (Trent Reznor gets namechecked dozens of times) but fundamentally it's the same mainstream sleaze and horror mix that has raked in huge royalties for King senior for so many years.

Heart Shaped Box starts with a brilliant hook; a semi-retired heavy metal icon buys a ghost over the internet, with the expected horror novel consequences. For the first two chapters it's fantastic stuff, fun, goofy and spooky all at the same time. However the author makes a fatal mistep in explaining the mystery behind the ghost and its connection to our protagonist a mere three chapters in, abruptly removing all suspense and any chance at genuinely scary horror (which admittedly he does pull off rather well in the first two chapters). For this reason, among others, the plot is a bit of a failure. A good horror story requires mystery and despite so much potential in the setup Hill pisses it all away almost immediately. Nor is there much suspense to be found being concerned for the characters either, as they're neither sympathetic nor interesting. The themes and deeper meaning of the story are integrated well but far too obvious. (There's this GHOST right? And it's from his PAST. And it's CHASING him.)

On the other hand, while How Proust Can Change Your Life is a breezy, petitely dimensioned two hundred pages but Heart Shaped Box is over three hundred and fifty in large paperback format and I finished them both in about the same time. This is attributable to one genuinely respectable talent that Hill has inherited directly from his father.

I've read a few mainstream novels in my time, or at least I've tried. Tom Clancy and John Grisham's offerings were both hurled viciously against the wall (literally) in disgust at their offensive stupidity before I managed to finish either novel. I did make it to the end of The Da Vinci Code, but was choking and gagging the whole way. Stephen King, although he is similar in stature to these authors in a commercial context, has kept me entertained more than a few times because he is simply a better writer by miles and his son shares this skill. His prose is nothing more than workmanlike, but it's the platonic ideal of workmanlike writing. Simple, direct, and great tasting contentless brain candy. While I was staying up well past midnight on a school night to devour this novel I was struck by the image of myself eating an entire packet of salt and vinegar potato chips. You know it's junk and it'll make you feel ill the next day but it just feels so good and satisfying to keep chomping on mouthful after mouthful until it's all gone.


Ben said...


Read Robert E. Howards original Conan works. They rock.

While you're at it check out the next WoW killer

Three Reasons that game looks sweet:
1. It has Conan in it.
2. It's being developed by Norwegians not Americans.
3. It has fatalities.

Jon said...

Yeah I've heard of Age of Conan. It looks cool but I don't really have the time to get into an MMO...