Friday, May 4, 2007

Heart Shaped Box by Joe Hill

Heart Shaped Box is a hard novel to review. Not because it was a bad read, but because the author's background is hard to separate from the story. Joe Hill, soon after his book was published, was revealed to be the son of Stephen King. Some may say the revelation was a publicity stunt, and maybe it was on the publisher's part, but I do not believe this was Hill's desire. According to reports and interviews, Hill was careful not to tell his publishers exactly who he was until his manuscript was accepted on its own merits. I can respect and understand that: how can you know you are good if you are published on your father's laurels? Add in the fact that Heart Shaped Box is a ghost story and I believe Hill hands down. You have to be pretty blasted bold to write and publish a ghost story while hanging on your father's, the master of horror's, reputation.

So, for the moment, let us set aside the notion that Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King, and see how Hill stands on his on two feet.

Heart Shape Box opens on one of the most absurd, but logical premises: an aging rock star, Jude Coyne, (think an American Ozzy Osbourne, but one who was a little more sober) buys a ghost off an Internet auction site. Absurd, yes, but logical, too: after all, there seems to be EVERYTHING for sale on eBay. The ghost really does exist: a menacing figure of an old man, with disturbing black squiggles for eyes- as if a child scribbled on the eyes in a photograph with black marker. Yet, the ghost is no ordinary ghost, however, rather he is the ghost of the father of one of Jude's cast away girlfriends, and he's out for revenge.

What follows is a curvy, up and down ride of slow thrills and chills. Hill takes the simple yet absurd premise and builds up a tale of surprisingly chilling horror. Nothing is ever how it seems, neither Jude nor the ghost, the haunting or the haunted. The story itself takes off in directions not to be expected: for example, rather than stay and fight the ghost at home, Jude hits the road- if he has to fight a ghost, he'll fight it in his own way and time. The result is an enjoyable thrill ride, and a nagging feeling to check the eyes of any suspicious person for black scribbles.

Now, as mentioned above, Hill does have an impressive family background, and the question remains: how does he compare? The answer is simple, yet complex. Joe Hill stands on his own. If you read the book with no knowledge of who his father is, you would find it perfectly enjoyable: the writing is impressive, well composed; the plot is quirky, unique, enjoyable; the characters seem like old friends. Those same traits, though, are what his father is known for. Yet, rather than just being an imitation of King's style, Hill has shaped that style into a form of his own. The bones are the same, the delivery- excellently done- is all his own. It is obvious Hill learned on the knee of a master, but it is also apparent that Hill is a writer of his own merits- one to watch.

Bottom line: Joe Hill is a writer to watch, and his parentage just makes the package all the sweeter.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

You may have heard of this book, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, it was recently selected for Oprah's Book Club. It was really amusing, actually, because the day before the book was announced, I ran across a review of the book, which reminded me I wanted to read this title due to the interesting concept, and I placed a hold at the library for it. Who knew that this grim little book would be Oprah's book choice?

And The Road is a a grim little book. It is sparse and dry, empty and full of quiet heartbreak. One does not smile reading this book. One does not feel joy reading this book. McCarthy paints a bleak future, where man hunts man and the world is dead. After closing the pages of this book, I felt tired and emotionally dead. The book left me feeling there was no hope in the world, if that was the end.

The story follows a nameless man and his son. In this future world, names do not matter, only survival. The man strives on only for his son: if he can stay alive, so can his son. The son is suppose to be a bright beacon. He still believes in good guys and honesty and something waiting at the end of the world. Yet the world this child walk through shows nothing to support this belief in good amd a future. The earth is dust, dry and barren. The few people encountered on the road are theives and cannibals. Starvation is a constant companion.

Yet, for all that the book is depressing and draining, it is compelling. Although you know there is no hope, it is written into the very landscape of the novel, you read on, hoping against hope for some ray of hope. The writing is crisp and smooth: McCarthy has a deft hand at words. If you are looking to go on a journey with a master storyteller, regardless of an outcome of sheer darkness, than this is a book to persue, but if you are simply wishing for a pleasent read, well, one might wish to look elsewhere.