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Sunday, March 25, 2007


A Novel

By Joe Hill

Morrow. 376 pp. $24.95

In the opening scene of Joe Hill's first novel, Jude Coyne, an aging rock star with a penchant for macabre collectibles, buys a ghost through an Internet auction house. The transaction is made tangible by shipment of the dead man's Sunday suit. Contrary to Jude's initial skepticism, the suit arrives (in the heart-shaped box of the title) and the ghost with it: an aged man in a fedora, "black lines squirmed and tangled" where his eyes should be, and a razor dangling on a chain from his ring finger.

More than Jude bargained for? No, maybe exactly what he deserves. It turns out that the singer also has a penchant for Goth chick groupies -- "their limber, athletic, tattooed bodies and eagerness for kink" -- and this spirit is Craddock McDermott, the stepfather of a suicidal ex-girlfriend, a stepfather apparently now bent on revenge.

Though he's not advertising the fact, Hill is the son of Stephen King, but he's able to concoct a rousing story in his own right despite those big shoes (or maybe because he's learned something at the master's feet?). Early scenes tap into common nocturnal fears: Is there someone in the house? The realistic and the fantastic mix to eerie ends: Radio deejay patter and TV shows morph regularly into Craddock's voice, urging evil thoughts that the characters struggle to resist.

For all the ghostly goings-on, however, Hill is ultimately after another level of horror. The major players are either victims or victimizers in a cycle of childhood abuse -- a common element of Goth chickdom, as Jude comments in reflecting on that jilted girlfriend and his current flame, Georgia. But Jude carries scars, too, from an abusive father who once slammed his teenage son's hand in a door and whose impending death shadows the story as much as Craddock's dark spirit. Our heroes aren't just facing unwelcome fates but contending with difficult pasts as well.

Hill can write an effectively scary scene (he's already won awards for his short fiction), but he falters in balancing the aspects of the novel's longer form: overall pacing, structural cohesion, even consistency of plot and theme. As Jude and Georgia battle the ghost, we find ourselves struggling with questions as well: Who can see Craddock? When? Is the key to defeating him in this world or the next? Singing seems a winning strategy -- thematically apt, too -- and maybe Georgia's grandmother holds some clue, but ultimately little is made of either strand.

Late in the novel, Jude feels brief pity for his sickly father, and Hill slips in some quick commentary on the genre: "Horror was rooted in sympathy, after all, in understanding what it would be like to suffer the worst." But the book's greatest flaw lies in the myriad times Hill misses opportunities to put that wisdom to work. In the climactic scene, Hill amps up the action instead of diving into what should be complex layers of emotion. Mixing sympathy and suffering would have plunged into the depths of true horror.

--Art Taylor is an assistant professor of English at George Mason University.

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