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Untrue Lies: Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box

Book #20 for 2011: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

I wanted to like this book. I really, really did. I wanted to like it because everyone on Amazon seems to like it and the professional reviewers did too. Heck, even the New York Times gave it a rave review when it came out back in 2007. (They had Janet Maslin, who at the time was one of their movie critics, review it.) But for some reason me and this book didn’t get along. About halfway through, I could feel the book starting to fall apart (plot-wise, not literally) and two-thirds of the way through it took a leap down the toilet (once again, not literally). But it started out very, very well.

Some background: Horror writer Joe Hill is actually Joseph Hillstrom King, son of that other horror-writing King, Stephen. He writes prose that’s very reminiscent of his father’s and he gives every appearance of having the potential to be quite good at it. (He also has the funniest Twitter feed — @Joe_Hill — that I subscribe to, though you probably have to be fond of somewhat geeky subject matter, like comic books and Joss Whedon, to appreciate the jokes.)

This is his first novel (he’s subsequently written a second) and it has a clever premise: An aging heavy metal musician, sort of a less-addled version of Ozzie Osbourne named Judas “Jude” Coyne, buys a haunted suit on an Internet auction site so he can add it to his collection of macabre memorabilia. It turns out that the suit really is haunted and that the ghost who comes with it is eager to collect Jude’s soul and send him down the “nightroad” (i.e., the road to some presumably unpleasant afterlife). In an early plot twist, Jude learns that he was suckered into buying the suit by someone who wants revenge on him, apparently because they believe that he was responsible for the suicide of one of his former girlfriends.

This is a cute idea and it gets cuter. The ghost is that of an old man who devised systems of occult-based psychological warfare for the Army during the Vietnam War, hypnotizing captured Viet Cong into doing things like cutting off their own fingers and worse. Now that he’s dead, the ghost (whose name is Craddock James McDermott) wants to convince Jude to kill himself. The novel is as much about the psychological warfare between Jude and Craddock as it’s about a typical ghostly haunting.

Hill has a strong sense of style and the book, at least in the beginning, is fun to read. I think it doesn’t hold up in the long run because Hill makes two mistakes. The first is that this plot would be adequate to fill a novella or maybe even a shorter novel, but not a novel of the length that publishers seem to demand these days (which is to say, more than 100,000 words). There are sequences, especially in the second half, where Hill seems to be padding the book’s length, stretching out scenes that would have benefitted from tightening. This is a common problem in popular novels, one that the elder King has committed on more than one occasion, and is more annoying than it is fatal.

The second, fatal error is that Hill never lays down clear rules for how his supernatural universe works, leaving Jude free to guess methods by which he can protect himself and his current girlfriend from harm by Craddock’s ghost. And, surprise, his guesses are always right. Jude guesses, based on scant evidence, that dogs can protect him from the ghost. (Who knew?) This is convenient, because Jude owns two large dogs who turn out to be remarkably hungry for ectoplasm. Jude guesses, based again on scant evidence, that ghosts can be fought with music. This is convenient because Jude is a singer-songwriter.

Pretty soon, Jude’s guesses (along with his girlfriend’s) become the primary engine with which Hill drives the plot and, frankly, this is a little tedious, not to mention unbelievable. But where my suspension of disbelief really went out the window was about two-thirds of the way through, when Jude and girlfriend face down the book’s main (living) villain, the sister of the former girlfriend. Jude guesses, based on similarly scant evidence, what really happened after the former girlfriend left him and returned to her family, and the sister, who is so evil she almost cackles, obligingly confirms it for him. It’s like that scene in every other Agatha Christie novel where Hercule Poirot pulls some ridiculously detailed solution to the mystery out of his little gray cells and confidently brings the killer to light. I never believed that scene when Agatha Christie wrote it and I don’t find it believable from Hill either.

From that point on I was reading just to get the book finished. It’s an odd thing when suspension of disbelief goes away. Before it goes away you feel like you’re reading about real people and real things that happened to them. After it goes away, you feel like you’re just reading some sort of contrived story invented by a person with a word processor. The joke, of course, is that that’s what you’ve always been reading, but suspension of disbelief has conveniently hidden that fact from you so that you could enjoy the author’s contrivances. Without suspension of disbelief, those contrivances are just well-written lies preserved on paper (or in static RAM).

And yet I still think Joe Hill has potential. He writes with wit and a certain degree of charm and at some point I’d like to read his second novel, Horns, which came out last year. (It seems to be about a guy who wakes up one morning to discover that he’s grown, well, horns.) At the moment, though, I don’t think I’m quite up for it.

About Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and our cat Lola, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

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