Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Fearless Heart

Neil Gaiman’s praise in the jacket copy gave me high hopes. “A genuinely scary novel filled with people you care about; the kind of book that still stays in your mind after you’ve turned over the final page. I loved it unreservedly.”

I would have read the book anyway—in part, though I know he doesn’t want it this way—because I want to see if Joe Hill (Joseph Hillstrom King) has what his daddy’s got. You don’t really expect him to, but you can’t help but root for him either, for Papa Stephen’s sake.

I love Gaiman, so I’m inclined to listen to what he says, but still, the particulars in the description are what got me. “Genuinely scary” is good; even Stephen King doesn’t always pull that off, and he does it better than anybody. “Filled with people you care about” is even more important. To care about characters, on some level, you need to believe in them, and much horror comes from a perspective that seems so cloistered that believing in them, much less caring about them, is hardly a serious concern. But I can’t think of any characteristic that better separates great horror from mediocre.

The idea that it stays with you and that Gaiman loves it “unreservedly” means that much more. It means you want to spend more time with these characters. And, ultimately, it suggests that there’s a real heart in this Heart-Shaped Box.

And I’ll be damned if there isn’t. It’s stuck close to me over the week or so since I finished reading it, and I truly wish I could spend more time with the characters. I want the movie; I want to listen to it on tape; I want to reread it. I want everyone I know to read it (at least all of those who have strong stomachs for horror).

It is not a timid book. To be honest, for the first 100 pages or so, I wasn’t sure it wasn’t a heartless book. I was involved because it was very fast paced. By page 8, the aging rock star protagonist has bought a ghost off the Internet. By page 26, the ghost has come calling. By page 33, the ghost’s murderous vendetta has been revealed.

It only picks up momentum from there, and by page 124, I felt certain that I had reached the climax of any horror story I’d ever read before. Honestly, I was a little concerned that it was 351 pages long because I thought it would have to simply be a series of chase scenes carrying 2/3rds of the book.

Boy, was I wrong.

The book Gaiman unreservedly loves, the book I grew to unreservedly love, was just getting started. In that first third, this simply seems to be the story of a narcissistic rock star in his decline and how he gets what’s coming to him for past bad behavior. But where Hill goes from there explodes all such preconceptions.

Judas Coyne, the protagonist, and his current girlfriend, Florida, grow as characters while the book unfolds. And as they grow, they overcome some of their own self loathing and their own sense that they’re getting what’s coming to them. Judas and Florida are really Justin Cowzynski, an abused kid who once farmed hogs in southern Louisiana, and Marybeth Kimball, another Southerner with her own dark history.

As the story develops, we realize the goth metal culture Justin and Marybeth share is hardly the cause of their problems, but it’s their way of dealing with their past. And the ghost with the plan to kill them is actually the kind of upright citizen that blames people like them for the evils of the world while he perpetuates far worse things than either one of them could have imagined behind closed doors.

Light on its feet and unassuming as it is, Heart-Shaped Box speaks to all of the themes of this blog in one way or another. The fact that the younger King has taken the famous Wobbly folksinger’s name as his own seems less than accidental when the book reveals its strong sense of class consciousness. In countless ways, the book considers how people are valued or disvalued in society, often for all the wrong reasons.

The monster is, what I would argue almost all monsters are, a reflection of the kind of sickness that gets ignored by polite society. And while common prejudices blame music for the evils in this story, the music of the novel emerges as the key to killing the monsters. In my favorite essay on music, James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues,” he says why this is, in terms of any blues no matter what we may call it (in his book goth metal)—“For while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

That’s the kind of tale that lies in this heart-shaped box. And somewhat ironically, it’s a tale of horrible fathers that serves as a tribute to, as Joe Hill writes in his dedication, “my dad, one of the good ones.” On one level, this is a fast-paced thrill ride that does his father proud. On another, it’s a vindication of art forged out of horror and all of the light that it offers those dark corners where it’s most desperately needed.