Last winter I was very eager to read Joe Hill's debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, even before the author was a guest blogger for Powells.com — and yes, even before I learned he is Stephen King's son. The premise was just so deliciously perfect: an "aging death-metal rock god" buys a ghost on eBay. Mayhem ensues.
It sounded like a fun thrill-ride, the sort of novel that really could be, to quote the publisher's copy, "a masterwork brimming with relentless thrills and acid terror."
I started my advanced copy the instant it arrived, and stopped about halfway through. I confess, I was neither scared nor thrilled by the book. I've read accolades from the likes of Scott Smith and Neil Gaiman, not to mention fawning reviews from the press, and yet... it just didn't work for me. Hey, it happens. I'll spare you the spoiler warning and just note that by the time the plot hit the road, my suspension of disbelief was fully revoked.
Now, however, I find myself reconsidering that earlier position and thinking about rereading Heart-Shaped Box.
No, I'm not giving in to peer pressure or doubting my own opinion. But after reading 20th Century Ghosts, the upcoming collection of Joe Hill's short stories, I find myself utterly spellbound by the author. Maybe there was something I just didn't "get" about Box that I'll pick up a second time through.
Originally published in the U.K. two years ago by PS Publishing, this is the first U.S. edition of Ghosts — and a genuine treat for fans of... well, here I'm at a loss. While Hill has the blood of Stephen King coursing through his veins, anyone expecting Night Shift Redux will be gravely disappointed. Hill's work hews much closer to the stories of Neil Gaiman — but here, too, comparison fails me.
I'm left with no recourse but to declare Joe Hill a genuine original.
The stories in 20th Century Ghosts contain many tropes that will be familiar to readers of horror and dark fantasy — ghosts, vampires, giant insects, cannibalistic maniacs with knives — and yet, there is an X-factor that marks each story as truly unique and startlingly original.
Perhaps Hill himself best describes his approach, in this excerpt from the opening tale, "Best New Horror."
[Eddie Caroll] didn't finish most of the stories he started anymore, couldn't bear to. He felt weak at the thought of reading another story about vampires having sex with other vampires. He tried to struggle through Lovecraft pastiches, but at the first painfully serious reference to the Elder Gods, he felt some important part of him going numb inside, the way a foot or hand will go to sleep when the circulation is cut off. He feared the part of him being numbed was his soul.
At the end of this passage, I wanted to stand up and cheer. Gaiman once described horror as an ingredient rather than a meal, and I couldn't agree more: as an ingredient, it's pungent and powerful and somewhat addicting. But too many bad chefs have tried to turn it into an entire seven-course feast, with wildly diminished results.
Later in the same story, Hill issues a stirring call to arms:
Although the ending was more John Carpenter than John Updike, Caroll hadn't come across anything like it in any of the horror magazines....It concerned itself with tortured family relationships, shitty jobs, the struggle for money. Carroll had forgotten what it was like to come across the bread of everyday life in a short story. Most horror fiction didn't bother with anything except rare bleeding meat.
Is this a mission statement? Prophecy? Or merely a sly allusion to Hill's own approach to a genre that must have seemed overly familiar to him since... well, birth?
If this is, indeed, the rationale for Hill's work, based on the results witnessed herein, he has succeeded beautifully. Whatever horrors Hill explores (sometimes with a palpable, macabre glee that must live in his genes) are tempered by a recognizable, often staggering humanity that far too many horror writers completely ignore (and, I submit, many mainstream fiction writers aim for and completely miss).
Fans of vampire lore will be heartened to learn that "Abraham's Boys" is a pseudo-sequel to Bram Stoker's Dracula, depicting the offspring of vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing. What Hill does with this story, however, is so wholly unexpected and bracingly distinctive that it will surprise even the most dedicated Stoker fan, and delight readers who cannot bear to sit through yet another tired vampire tale.
"20th Century Ghost" is as heartbreaking a story as I've read. It will penetrate straight to the heart of film lovers and fans of the supernatural — and if you qualify for both, as I do, it will be pure ecstasy. The next time someone complains that an emotionally honest story can't be written in the so-called "horror genre," I'll show her this one and watch her mind change before my eyes.
Or "Pop Art," which is almost indescribably offbeat and magnificently devastating.
"The Cape" takes the tropes of the classic superhero origin story and spins them in a direction that is genuinely affecting — and leads to one of the most truly shocking endings I've read in ages.
Hill puts his own delicious spin on the serial killer genre in "The Black Phone," nicely taking the piss out of those overly romanticized psychos who have littered crime fiction since a guy named Harris introduced a guy named Hannibal.
There is a real danger in overhyping a book before it's been published. My enthusiasm for Scott Smith's The Ruins led to some strong responses from those who weren't as taken with the book as I was (and am). To each their own, of course, and I make no guarantees that you'll be as taken with the book as I was.
But, if I may borrow from the TV pitchman: I'm so confident you'll love 20th Century Ghosts that I'm GIVING IT AWAY.
Well, to one of you.
Just post a comment below (minimum two sentences in length) by 12:00 noon PST Friday, October 5th, 2007.
Make sure to use your actual email address (readers to the blog won't see it, but I will), and only enter once (duplicate email addresses won't count). I'll randomly select one winner to receive their own advanced copy of the book.
And be sure to let me know what you think.
Even if you don't win, take heart in the fact that you'll be able to pick up your own copy of 20th Century Ghosts when the book is published on October 1st. So there's plenty of time to get your blood chilled before Halloween...
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Chris Bolton co-created the all-ages webcomic Smash, which will soon be published by Candlewick Press, and created the comedy series Wage Slaves. His short story "The Red Room" was published in Portland Noir from Akashic Books.
Books mentioned in this post