Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Hangover from hell (the Joe Hill cycle)

 So. Joe Hill, everybody! He's Stephen King's son, which I'm pretty means that you have two Life Choices: follow in your dad's creepy footsteps, or run away to be come an accountant in a drab Midwestern town.

Fortunately for you (and me!) Hill chose the former, although he doesn't publish under the King name (his given name is actually Joe Hillstrom King). To be fair and aboveboard, I have to confess that I haven't read a tremendous amount of Stephen King's work (Salem's Lot, Cell, Carrie, and Misery, which is barely scratching the surface of King's impressive oeuvre). Which is fine, because I don't think that comparing King and Hill makes any sense, although both could be shelved under the creepy/horror section.

Filial connection aside, Joe Hill is a damn good writer, creepy as hell with a big streak of dry humor that he whips out unexpectedly. His writing is brisk, almost terse, but he's got a way with phrases that elicit a gut-clenching disgust at just the right time.

So! Horns is Hill's most recent novel (2010). Ignatius "Ig" Parrish, the son of a wealthy and privileged family in a small New Hampshire town, has spent the last year in a living hell. His girlfriend, Merrin Williams, was raped and murdered, and although Ig was never charged with killing her, the entire town (and his family) are pretty sure he did it. On the anniversary of Merrin's death, Ig gets wasted at the abandoned foundry where she died.

He wakes up with a vicious hangover, which is to be expected. Except he also has horns, which is not to be expected. Ig's not just hallucinating; other people can see his horns too, although instead of being horrified, Ig finds himself their unwilling confessor as they detail the awful things they want to do and how they really feel about him.

Some would argue with me, but I think this is the book's most horrific part. A terrified Ig flees to his parents' house, but his parents, grandmother, and brother tell them what they really think about him - they're convinced he killed Merrin and they really just want him to go away.

Oh, and they pretty much hate each other. I don't know about you, but the last thing I want to know is exactly what everybody else thinks of me, because I have a sneaking suspicion that Ig and I would have something in common.

Of course, like most demonic powers, Ig's horns have an upside. With some pushing, he can convince people to do things, and Ig decides to make the best of his newfound hell to try to solve Merrin's murder - but this leads him to his brother, Terry, and Ig's best friend Lee Tourneau, and a whole slew of unwelcome realizations. Talk about a snake in the nest - Tourneau, whom Ig has known since middle school, is a textbook psychopath who is really, really good at hiding it, and Ig's new powers don't work on Tourneau's damaged mind.

Horns lags a tiny bit in the middle, when Ig is trying to square himself with his newfound powers, but quickly picks up speed as the newly demonic Ig and the murderous Tourneau face off. Hill chucks some supernatural fantasy in there too, but just enough (and deftly enough) that the book remains more like looking at a warped reflection of reality than a work of fantasy. Hill's most powerful weapon is his ability to look into the gross heart of otherwise ordinary people - the seething, angry core that everyone walks around with but (mostly) manages to hide.

This edition of Horns also contains a previously unpublished short story.

Heart-Shaped Box was Hill's first novel (there's a sly nod and a wink to Box hidden in the pages of Horns for those in the know), published in 2007. A more straightforward novel than Horns, Box is a ghost story, familiar but bracing as a shot of whiskey.

Judas Coyne (nee Justin Cowzynski) is a retired rock star, former singer of heavy metal band Jude's Hammer, living the good life with his two beloved dogs and a rotating cast of girlfriends, much younger Goth strippers that Coyne nicknames with their state of origin so that he won't have to bother remembering their names.

As befitting a former heavy metal singer, Coyne collects (or is given by adoring fans) bits and pieces of occult arcana. On a whim, he bids on a dead man's suit online that the seller promises is haunted.

And oh, it is. The seller, Jessica Price, is the sister of Coyne's former girlfriend, Florida (Anna). Anna committed suicide after Coyne sent her back to Florida, and Jessica blames Coyne. The dead man's suit comes infected with the ghost of Craddock McDermott, Anna's stepfather, a man uniquely suited to raising hell: he's a hypnotist, a Vietnam-era psyops, and his ghost has no problem offing Coyne in the here-and-now.

Soon Coyne and Georgia are on a road trip to Florida to try to get Jessica to take back Craddock's ghost - complicated by the fact that Craddock is trying very competently to kill them, and anyone who helps them will also become a target. Hill is especially skilled at conjuring up the sweaty, suspicious, and creepy denizens of the Florida panhandle. Coyne's return to Florida also dredges up a number of unpleasant memories - Coyne himself is from Florida, and his abusive father, now elderly, is slowly dying in Coyne's decrepit childhood home. To free themselves from Craddock, Coyne and Georgia need Anna's help - but Anna is dead, and Coyne isn't sure whether or not she's willing to listen to them.

There's nothing particularly surprising about Heart-Shaped Box, but Hill makes a rather classic ghost story fresh and frightening with his careful attention to detail and his fully fleshed-out characters. Horror stories have a tendency to ignore the people in favor of slopping on the gore, but Hill does just the opposite, making the reader invested in the survival of Coyne and Georgia, flawed and angry though they are. Coyne in particularly is a total juicebox, contemptuous, dismissive, and floundering in his retirement, but fighting Craddock (ironically!) brings him back to life.

And so, going backward in time brings us to Hill's first book, a collection of short stories titled 20th Century Ghosts. The stories in this collection encompass a pretty broad swathe of the horror/fantasy genre, with a little dip into sci-fi here and there.

Ghosts opens with "Best New Horror," a meta-dip into a story about a story. A horror anthologist receives a secondhand short story and sets off in pursuit of the author, with grotesque results (probably my least favorite story, it reads rather like a screenplay for any of the innumerable variants of the "murderous hillbillies" film genre). Hill redeems it with "Pop Art," a little gem of a story about a very unusual genetic quirk. "You Will Hear The Locust Sing" is "Metamorphosis" by way of nuclear holocaust. "Abraham's Boys" puts a new spin on the Dracula oeuvre - what did happen to the Harkers after all that business with stakes and mallets was over? In "The Black Phone," an imprisoned boy gets help from his abductor's previous victims. An angry teenager stumbles across a murder scene in the woods in "In The Rundown," but it's more scary for what it leaves out. "My Father's Mask" is a bizarre little dreamscape that will leave you unsettled and disoriented. "The Cape" brings new meaning to the term "anti-hero."

"Voluntary Committal" is, in my humble opinion, the most disturbing of Ghosts stories. Middle-schooler Nelson's younger brother, diagnosed with juvenile schizophrenia, spends his spare time in the basement building fantastic structures out of cardboard boxes. Nelson befriends Eddie, a budding juvenile delinquent. When one of Eddie and Nelson's stunts goes wrong, Nelson's friendship with Eddie takes a toxic turn, so Nelson's brother makes Eddie go away. Permanently. There's no gore, no blood, and no murder, but "Voluntary Committal" is creepy to the bone.

So. Joe Hill. Will he be as prolific as his father (for whom he is, incidentally, a dead ringer)? I certainly hope so.