8 out of 10
A literate literary patricide.
Written by Joe Hill
Read by Stephen Lang
Published by HarperAudio, February 13, 2007
9 CDs, 11 hours and 6 minutes.
Availability: in print.
“Hell is talk radio – and family.”
Joe Hill’s debut novel Heart-Shaped Box is accomplished, polished, and hauntingly familiar. Although a malevolent ghost stalks the hero, a more powerful shade looms over the author: his father, Stephen King. I approached Heart-Shaped Box with sympathetic curiosity: how do you forge your own path when you’re the son of the world’s most famous horror writer’ Well, you might try and write something King wouldn’t or couldn’t, like a comic book (Hill has) or an academic work of history (hasn’t). (Hey Joe, I don’t think King ever wrote an original audio drama . . .)
Or if you’re Joe Hill, you could stare down the master of the Dark Tower and beat him at his own game. You might even do it with a story about rebellion against powerful, over-reaching fathers. Perhaps Joe Hill deserves to have his work critiqued without reference to his father’s oeuvre; perhaps he doesn’t. I’ll leave that question to others wiser than me. For better or worse, this longstanding King reader can’t ignore the connection. Guess that means I’m haunted too.
Heart-Shaped Box relates the tale of one Judas Coyne, an aging, jaded heavy-metal rock star. Coyne is an appealingly gruff misanthrope. He’s as contemptuous of his poor upbringing (son of a pig farmer) and his sycophantic public as Gene Simmons or Ozzy Osbourne, but not nearly as ostentatious. It’s impossible to imagine the reclusive Coyne creating a reality show about his life, because unlike those real-life rockers he’s never had a family. Childless, the once-married Coyne has gone through a succession of young goth lovers whom he refuses to call by name, labeling them by home state. The story revolves around two: current flame Georgia (Mary Beth), and Florida (Anna), who committed suicide after a break-up with Coyne.
Like a raven with a disinterested interest in glittering trash, Coyne keeps a collection of macabre items as trappings for his Heavy Metal nest. He owns the skull of a medieval peasant, trepanned to release the demons inside, the signed confession of a witch, and a snuff film, among other things. The story opens when Coyne’s assistant Danny brings his attention to an online auction for a ghost embodied in an old suit. Intrigued and compelled, Coyne orders it on the spot. The suit arrives – you guessed it – in a black heart-shaped box. It is soon revealed that the ghost is quite real, and that Coyne’s purchase was part of a diabolic revenge plot involving his deceased lover. Now he and his friends are stalked by the spirit of Anna’s grandfather Craddock McDermott, a former soldier, hypnotist, and dowser who mesmerizes with his glittering razor.
Stephen Lang reads Hill’s words at a measured pace with gray baritone gravitas. He gives Jude a dead seriousness and terse growl that mask the rocker’s conflicted affection for others, and invests his supernatural opponent Craddock with a Southern lilt that glides from courtly to craven. Craddock is so well realized in all his moods and cadences that the audio springs to life whenever he manifests. Lang’s female characters are sometimes interchangeable, but read with an empathetic conviction that makes you forget you’re listening to a low-voiced man. As a narrator Lang supplies the frankness Hill’s economic text requires, leavening it with a hint of foreboding. Between them, Hill and Lang paint a landscape that is overcast, introspective, and raw.
There is much of Hill’s father in the text. True, Randall Flagg doesn’t flit through these pages, Craddock doesn’t have hands without lines on the palms, and familiar King catch phrases like ‘you don’t get to win’ and ‘that’s not in the script’ are mercifully absent. But the Southern villain does strongly recall the politely murderous, implacable John Shooter of King’s Secret Window, Secret Garden, scribbles over the eyes are kissing cousins to palms without lines, rock and roll references abound, and evil once again boils down to inexplicable meanness for its own sake. In King stories, the most frightening motive is not to have one, and here too we never really find out what drives McDermott to his crimes. Most significantly but hardest to describe, Hill’s style of wrapping personal with actual demons betrays his bloodline.
The similarities between father and son are so strong it sometimes feels like King might have written this book. That is, on his best day. The young Hill is a better wordsmith and craftsman than his veteran father. Much better. King seems to write novels on the fly, burning up pages with feverish imagination, letting tales take him where they will. This often gives his novels a freshness, as if both reader and writer are discovering the story for the first time. But spur-of-the-moment invention doesn’t always lead to great resolutions, and King’s endings fail spectacularly as often as they succeed, trailing a welter of unresolved plot points behind them. (Ever read Gerald’s Game or The Tommyknockers, or even the finale of Dark Tower‘ Don’t. Hell, even King himself advises you not to read the final pages of Dark Tower.)
Hill writes with deliberation and poetic economy, wasting nothing. There is not a phrase or idea in this book that doesn’t serve his larger narrative purpose. This makes for a tighter read than Hill’s more prolific father usually provides. It also gives his characters more substance and weight. Many of King’s characters never shed the taint of stereotype – even his most famous creation, Roland Deschain, is more idea than person. Hill begins with stereotypes (disaffected aging rockstar, overeager flunky, lost and depressed goth girl) and builds genuine people upon their foundation.
Finally, Hill has that rare gift of putting subtle sensations into words that you wouldn’t think could be articulated. He surprises you, as great authors like Italo Calvino or Herman Melville do, by aptly describing things we’ve all felt or thought but never thought about. Hill is no Calvino or Melville yet, but the gift is surely there. Here too, he has already surpassed King.
Hill’s debut novel may well have been his own heart-shaped gift to his father. It carries a poison promise: I can do your craft, your genre, and even your own style better than you. But sons become fathers, and Hill should take care that this box doesn’t become his own coffin. (‘Heart-Shaped Coffin’ was Kurt Cobain’s original title for the Nirvana song that gives this book its name.) He has revealed by doing that King’s style is a formula that can be learned and mastered. Done once and done well, that is a fascinating achievement. Done again and again, it will make Hill rich. But like all successful formulas, it comes at a price: confinement.
I’d like to think that Hill has laid his father’s shade to rest by invoking its voice so eloquently. In his next novel, I hope Hill will find his own.