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Wednesday, 18 April 2007 00:00

Heir to the King

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Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. William Morrow, 2007. 376 pages

Although both the publisher and the author of Heart-Shaped Box seem reluctant to admit that Joe Hill is actually the son of Stephen King, there is ample evidence to support this conclusion.

 

A visit to the Stephen King Web site verifies the fact that Tabithia and Stephen King have a son named Joe Hill. If that isn’t sufficient proof, then the first 20 pages of this novel should be sufficient: from the opening paragraph, the writing is undeniably “vintage King.” Did the author acquire this unique style by cloning, osmosis or channeling?

Regardless, one conclusion is undeniable — Joe Hill is his father’s “heir apparent.” Consider some selected details from the first page:

Jude had a private collection. He had framed sketches of the Seven Dwarfs on the wall of his studio, in between his platinum records. John Wayne Gacy had drawn them while he was in jail and sent them to him ... He had the skull of a peasant who had been trepanned in the sixteenth century to let the demons out ... He had a three-hundred-year-old confession signed by a witch ... a stiff worn noose used to hang a man in England ... and a snuff film.

Yes, Jude Coyne, the aging (and very wealthy) rock star protagonist of Heart-Shaped Box, likes to collect bizarre items — those one-of-a-kind articles that show up of eBay. In fact, now that he is the only surviving member of his notorious band (Jude’s Hammer), and he no longer makes personal appearances, he needs something to occupy his time. So, when his personal secretary tells him that a genuine “ghost” is for sale, naturally, Jude has to buy it.

In a few days, his newest acquisition arrived in a heart-shaped box that contains an elegant black suit — the kind that Johnny Cash liked so much. Before long, the ghost begins to appear, sitting quietly in a dimly-lit corridor, dangling something on a chain — a pendulum shaped like a razor — one of those devices that hypnotists use.

Gradually, Jude’s refuge, is transformed into a world of shadowy whispers and terrors. Georgia, Jude’s current lover (Jude names them for their states of origin), tries to destroy the ghost by burning the black suit, only to discover that their shadowy visitor not only survives, but is even more powerful ... and he has a name ... one that Google recognizes.

The ghost is Craddock James McDermott, a charismatic (dead) hypnotist and “avenging spirit,” who has been sent by the mother of Jude’s former lover, Florida. (Momma, says she holds Jude responsible for her daughter’s death). Further, Jude discovers that he has been tricked into inviting Craddock into his home, and now the evil sprite will pursue him relentlessly until he “and all he loves” is destroyed.

Jude begins to receive taunting, threatening emails from Craddock. When Jude’s private secretary commits suicide and both Jude and Georgia narrowly escape death, Jude decides to fight back.

In an act of desperation Jude decides to confront the woman who sent him the heart-shaped box. Taking Georgia and two German Shepherds (Angus and Bon, who become two of the most vital characters in the book), Judge drives to Florida... Craddock’s spectral truck follows him. Here begins a terrifying road trip to the home of Jessica McDermott Price, an embittered and devious woman who could easily qualify as one of the most terrifying incarnations of earthly evil in recent horror fiction.

However, before Jude Coyle reaches his destination in Florida, he and Georgia encounter a series of bizarre manifestations that may raise the hair on the back of the reader’s neck. There is an eerie conversation with a “voice box” (one of those devices used by throat cancer patients) in a Denny’s restaurant and a series of sessions with Georgia’s old Quija board (which she finds at her grandmother’s home) that are unforgettable. Of course, incidents like these will certainly make fantastic scenes in the movie!

It becomes apparent that Jude’s final conflict with Craddock will come — not in Florida, but in a remote location in Louisiana where Jude’s dying father will become the final “host” for a bevy of hideous incarnations. Naturally, since Jude also has a large number of unresolved conflicts with his alcoholic father, this confrontation becomes personal... and surreal. Suffice it to say, Joe Hill has his father’s gift for orchestrating a gruesome climax.

In conclusion, let me say that if you are a true fan of supernatural thrillers, you will find much in Heart-Shaped Box that chills and gratifies. Does that mean that the work is flawless? Well, regrettably, no. Joe Hill is a master at conjuring up an awesome number of terrifying images. The problem arises when he attempts to lay them to rest. This fright-fest ends with a lot dangling or unresolved issues. Parts of the final denouement are either unconvincing or ambiguous — that means that the reader may close Heart-Shaped Box with an anxious sense that some of Hill’s nasty creations are still alive... and moving!

A visit to Joe Hill’s Web site www.joehillfiction.com reveals that some of the characters in this book have their own MySpace listings, photos (including the dogs), music and blogs. All of this suggests that Joe Hill, like his father, understands the importance of good promotion.

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