by: S. Scott Stanikmas
I almost passed on Joe Hill. When I went to buy his first novel the cashier told me he was Stephen King’s son, but that he wasn’t using his father’s last name so that he could be judged on his own merits. I’ll readily admit that I’m not the biggest King fan. I’ve read a few of his books and stalled through more than I can remember. The writing was good but it just didn’t catch me. I was worried that with the son I’d be getting more of the same. I agonized for a few seconds before taking a leap of faith and buying Heart-Shaped Box. Looking back now I’m glad that I made that purchase. Throughout the course of his three full length novels Joe Hill has managed to craft a world where the horrific and wondrous come together and seem almost real enough to be true.
It all starts in Heart-Shaped Box, a tale of the search for personal redemption and just how powerful the need for revenge can truly be. Here we get the story of Judas Coyne, an aging rock star who is also a collector of grim and hideous items. Boasting a collection that includes an actual snuff film and a witch’s confession, Coyne can’t resist when he sees his chance to buy a dead man’s suit. The cherry on the proverbial sundae is that this suit actually comes with the ghost of the former owner! Once the titular package arrives that’s when the bad times begin. We find out that this ghost has a grudge and is out to hurt and kill Coyne and anyone around him. With little time to lose Judas needs to figure out the mystery of this poltergeist before he gets shuffled off the mortal coil himself.
I remember reading this book on early mornings when I woke up before the alarm went off and I couldn’t fall back to sleep. This book had an atmosphere about it that even if I got tired there was no way I’d be falling back to sleep anyways. Hill has a way with description and worked some of the creepiest imagery I have ever read into this book. I still remember the part when Judas walked down the hall and saw the ghost sitting in one of his chairs. I can’t do it justice but the way he described the eyes as empty, looking full of static as if someone had scratched the eyes out of an old photograph, is truly disturbing. Almost ten years later and that part still haunts me.
Hill’s next novel, Horns, doesn’t go to quite the paranormal level that his previous work does but it still sits within the realm of the fantastic. Here we have the story of Ig Perrish, a young man on an increasingly epic downward spiral after he is accused and eventually acquitted of the rape and murder of his girlfriend Merrin. We begin with Ig waking up after another night lost to binge drinking. But unlike most every other morning Ig doesn’t wake up with just a hangover – he has a pair of horns protruding from his head. It’s revealed that these horns have some kind of magical powers, making the people around Ig want to confess their deepest secrets whether he wants them to or not. Ig soon comes to see the silver lining that this represents. He now has the perfect opportunity to question everyone around him and find the truth behind Merrin’s senseless death.
This was a love story masquerading as a horror thriller. While we do get some horrific moments, such as the actual account of Merrin’s attack and the attempted murder of Ig by someone he thought was a close friend, the truly scary moments are when we see what Ig’s life has become after he loses true love. It sounds a little sappy but this book had a great message about how love is truly everlasting and can win out against anything. I was moved by Hill’s depiction of the lengths that Merrin was willing to go to for Ig’s happiness. After reading her letter explaining why they fought on that rainy night one year earlier I cried. It was beautiful and selfless and everything that true love should be.
It’s the third novel NOS4A2 that begins to show us the making of a cohesive universe. Charlie Manx is a type of vampire, using his Rolls-Royce Wraith to abduct children and steal their life essence to keep himself alive. He takes the children to Christmasland and keeps them there in a state of perpetual youth while slowly turning them into pointy-toothed demons. The police never finger Charlie for any of the crimes though. He uses inscapes, or wormholes, to travel all across the country so he never hunts in the same place twice. (It’s when viewing a map of where the inter-dimensional roads take you that shows us the connections to Hill’s previous two novels.) With the help of the Gas-Mask Man, his own personal Renfield, to keep the parents “occupied”, Manx rides all over the country, looking for his next meal.
The Batman to Manx’s Joker is Victoria “Vic” McQueen, a young woman who can use similar inscapes to travel across the country. Vic almost allows herself to go willingly with Manx in a selfish attempt to hurt her mother for not caring enough about her. Vic soon comes to her senses and flees the grasp of the demon. But with time and space bending to his whim, Charlie Manx is in hot pursuit. He finally does catch up to Vic, but is captured by the police. Unable to feed, Manx soon falls into a coma in prison.
Vic grows up, marries, and eventually has a child. But the memories of the day she almost went to Christmasland still stick in the back of her mind. And it’s hard to repress those memories when Manx’s children continually call and harass her for taking their “father” away from them. True evil never stays dormant forever and soon Manx awakens form his coma. And when he does his sees his chance for revenge. You see, Vic McQueen is too old for Christmasland…but her son Wayne is just the right age to be Charlie’s newest playmate.
NOS4A2 was a hefty novel with a lot of great ideas. Hill wasn’t afraid to write a sprawling epic with his own twisted take on the vampire mythos. The fact that Hill didn’t necessarily feed on blood but the life essence of a person made it a little more personal. It’s especially chilling as you see its effects on Wayne, slowly turning him from human child to inhuman demon.
Joe Hill has a knack for writing interesting characters that you wouldn’t mind seeing more of. You can see his writing mature form novel to novel and you can see him get a little more daring with each outing as well. With Heart-Shaped Box we got a tiny slice of Judas Coyne’s life. With Horns he branched out and told a story in the now that had huge sections of flashbacks thrown in to help flesh out the backstory, showing us that what we thought we knew may have been wrong all along. NOS4A2 was his most epic achievement so far, telling the tale of Vic McQueen from adolescence to mature adulthood, and hopefully continuing the story with her son Wayne somewhere down the line.
And Hill isn’t just great at writing long form novels. His short story collection 20th Century Ghosts has some phenomenal short stories. Some of my favorites are “Best New Horror”, about a horror story editor who goes to visit the next big thing in scary writing and realizes that he may have entered a world that he was not prepared for: “Abraham’s Boys” is a story about the next generation of vampire hunters and the twisted lengths that a father will go to in order to protect his sons; and the titular tale “20th Century Ghost”, a tale of mortality and facing the end. While not all the stories were great the good outweigh the bland. This was technically Hill’s first book, released in the UK in 2005 but we Yanks didn’t see it until 2007, after the success of Heart-Shaped Box proved there was an audience for his writing.
As incredulous as it seems I could go on even longer writing about Hill’s comic book contributions, such as Locke & Key and his NOS4A2 prequel Wraith. But that’s another column for another time. For now I’ll simply say that I’m glad I didn’t pass up on his first novel like I had originally intended to. I would have missed out on one of the truly great authors of my time.