Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

He's Got His Daddy's Prose

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

This book by Stephen King's son has been getting diabolically good reviews. That's for a reason. This kind of John/John Quincy literary event can only take place when the spawn in question writes a book that is really really good, or really really bad. And this book is not really really bad. This book is really quite enjoyable and quite well-written. But let's not lose our heads about it.

Jude Coyle (real name Justin Cowzynski) is a man who ran screaming from his rural Lousiana horror show of a family with a guitar slung over his shoulder, and never looked back. When the book begins, Jude is the kind of aging rocker that King might have dreamed up had his legends been Trent Reznor and Ozzy instead of Pete Townsend and Mick Jagger. Jude collects morbid curiosities, like cannibal cookbooks and snuff films. So when a haunted dead man's suit comes up for auction on an eBay knock-off, he bids in a heartbeat.

What he doesn't know is that the ghost is very real, and that the whole thing is a set-up. The ghost-suit was designed for the explicit purpose of wreaking harrowing, life-ending destruction upon Jude and anyone who holds him dear. Jude knows what he did, and that son of a bitch has it coming.

The book takes Jude, his ex-stripper goth girlfriend, Georgia, and their dogs on a road trip into the heart of the South to find a way to stop the murderous ghost. And as they learn more about the man who's haunting them along the way, Jude becomes less a villain, and more an avenging hero.

Hill does a great job of taking two stereotypically flawed and damaged people, and gradually giving them hidden depths, and surprisingly, the capacity for goodness.

Once I read the line, "Jude had worked his way through a collection of Goth girlfriends who stripped, or told fortunes, or stripped and told fortunes, pretty girls who he always called by their state of origin, a habit few of them cared for, because they didn't like to be reminded of the person they were trying to erase with all their living-dead makeup," I thought I knew all I needed to know about Georgia. But don't rule Georgia (aka Marybeth) out too early. The girl's got heart.

Still, some of the death-rocker, Goth-girl tropes were a little too pat for me, sometimes bordering on misogynistic. That said, the book is well-plotted, surprising, and tinged with hope. Hill writes in a style and tone similar to King, but does something King never does. I won't say how ('cuz you'd never believe me), but he gives his characters the happy endings that they don't deserve, and it never feels like a cop-out. Also, in places, it's full-on petrifying.

It you like...: dogs, Southern Gothic, and heavy metal, this book is for you.

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