No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

#35: Heart-Shaped Box -- Joe Hill

Don't give up on yourself. The dead win when you quit singing and let them take you on down the road with them.

Ageing rock-star Judas Coyne (real name Justin Cowzynski) buys a ghost on the internet. It'll be great for his collection of the weird and occult. It arrives in the shape of the dead man's best black suit, with silver-dollar buttons, packed up in a heart-shaped box. And Jude's got his money's worth, for the goods are definitely as advertised.

Jude doesn't just collect occult paraphernalia. He collects girlfriends (a succession of young girls who he names after their state of origin: the present incumbent is Georgia, and her deceased predecessor was Florida). He collects admirers, drawn to his 'melodies of pain and hate' -- though by the start of the novel all that's behind him: 'Jude didn't care if there was any more music' -- and his brooding air of menace and darkness. He's haunted in more mundane ways by the ghosts of his past: dead bandmates, an abusive father who Jude hasn't seen for over three decades and who's slowly dying in the old house in Louisiana, the girls who he's left broken by the wayside.

That said, Jude's life is remarkably wholesome. His two German Shepherds, Bon and Angus, are his constant and most loyal companions: his secretary Danny is devoted to him: he lives in an old farmhouse in New York State, rebuilds cars, namedrops Trent Reznor and Jimmy Page, mocks My Chemical Romance and goth girl groupies.

Then Craddock, the ghost -- who is not an 'accidental ghost': a hypnotist and psychic in life, he came back on purpose -- begins his work.

This was an odd reading experience: very pacy, immediate, evocative, but once I'd put it down it all faded very quickly. The plot, a tale of supernatural revenge with plenty of twists (some more surprising than others) is well-constructed and builds ominously to its finale. There's enough of the supernatural to make this a gothic (small-g) tale -- Southern gothic, perhaps, because Jude's inner Southerner becomes more present as his layers are peeled away -- and enough rock'n'roll, sharp edges, drama to reel in the goths, despite all the nasty things Jude (or is it Mr Hill?) says about them: their taste for the weird, their emotional neediness, their embarrassing sincerity.

In terms of theme, I could say that this is a book about fathers. (I expect there's already plenty of analysis on this level, given that the author is Stephen King's son). There's Jude's relationship with his father, who punished him for running away to play in a band; there's Craddock's relationship with his family; there are shadows of abuse everywhere, from Georgia's great-aunt's abduction as a child (her ghost haunts the garden) to the used-car salesman who Jude punches out in the parking lot. And there's Jude's father, dying in a bed in a dark Louisiana house.

I think it's also a novel about loyalty -- not just loyalty to friends, lovers and family, but to one's ... I want to say 'vassals', it fits better than 'dependents' -- and about staying true to oneself. And perhaps about growing up, learning what to leave behind and what to keep. It's not just Jude who learns that lesson.

Heart-Shaped Box is cool and competent: the prose is clear, unpretentious and vividly visual. That said, sometimes it felt shallow, like a film: but in the horror genre I'd rather have shallow and arresting than deep and melodramatic.

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