The Son Also Frightens

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Shane Leonard

Joe Hill

Let's get this out of the way: Joe Hill's real name isn't Joe Hill, it's Joseph King. As in Stephen King's son. You won't find this on the jacket of Hill's first novel, Heart-Shaped Box (Morrow; 384 pages), nor is it in any of the press materials. This reflects a very principled stance that Hill and his publisher have taken, a conscious decision not to milk Hill's patrimony for publicity, and which I am now helping to ruin. They are right to do this, and I am wrong to use it for the sake of a good opening paragraph. There are only two things worth saying about Hill's distinguished ancestry. One is that whatever King has, he evidently passed along to his son, because Heart-Shaped Box is a top-notch piece of horror fiction. The other thing I'll save for the end of this review.

Heart-Shaped Box is about a very rich and very washed-up rock star named Judas Coyne. At 54 Coyne is jaded and cruel and bored and emotionally shut-down, living in rural splendor in a converted farmhouse with his various disposable goth girlfriends, his recording days long behind him. He likes to collect gruesome artifacts like snuff films. "When Danny Wooten, his personal assistant, told him there was a ghost for sale on the Internet and asked did he want to buy it, Jude didn't even need to think."

This turns out to be a tactical error. The ghost, a dapper old man with scribbled-over eyes, is very real and very evil, with a surprise personal stake in ruining Coyne's life, and it sets about its business in a fine, frightening style. Hill has a nice touch with those sinking moments when you suddenly realize that things, which you knew to be bad, are so very much worse than you ever could have imagined. "The dead pull the living down," is one of the ghost's tag lines, and it does its level best to deliver.

Soon Coyne is out of his house and on the road with his girlfriend, Georgia, racing the ghost (who drives a phantom pickup) south in search of the woman who sold it to him in the first place. There are quite a few artfully scary supernatural manifestations along the way — at various points the ghost takes control of the car radio, of a Ouija board, of other drivers, and even of the electronic voicebox of a stranger in a restaurant who's had a laryngectomy.

But the real magic trick is Hill's, and the transformation he works on his main character. Coyne begins the book as a cold, despicable misanthrope, but as we learn about the personal past that made him that way — he had an abusive father — we gain sympathy for him. Coyne changes, gaining humor in desperation, warming to the girlfriend he took for granted, and reconnecting with the music that he has all but abandoned. When confronted with real inhumanity, as opposed to his own affected coldness, Coyne softens unexpectedly, and his emotions wake up. We start to like him and sympathize with him — which makes us all the more vulnerable to the shock treatments of Heart-Shaped Box, since, as Hill observes, "Horror was rooted in sympathy, after all, in understanding what it would be like to suffer the worst."

I'm not going to ruin anything by detailing Coyne's sufferings any further, except to say that they're suitably vicious and cathartic. A lot of horror writers wind up revealing a sentimental streak in the end, but if Hill has one he keeps it well in check. This is, ultimately, a book about fathers and sons: Coyne must come to terms with his abusive father, and with the avenging ghost, who is the father of another key character. It's an appropriate enough theme for Hill, because every artist has to work in the shadow of his or her father-in-art, and symbolically, Oedipally overcome him, and in Hill's case his father-in-art is also his literal, biological father. Heart-Shaped Box isn't about appeasing fathers, and learning to love them, and seeing that they, too, are human beings and not monsters. It's not about that at all. It's about knowing your father, and finding him, and then killing him. That's what the best artists do.