Friday, 13 April 2012

Heart-Shaped Box

I have 18 minutes to write a coherent review before Not Going Out starts on the telly. So here we go.

Heart-Shaped Box is a 2008 horror novel written by the son of Stephen King. I, like many other reviewers, appear to have started by pushing aside the pseudonym Joe Hill and revealing Joseph King. Who understandably doesn't want to have his father's name hanging over him. And with good reason: on this evidence, he's better.

I'm not knocking Stephen King. When he writes well, he's a good read, and some of his works have had me properly enthralled. Misery was a visceral, engaging horror novel. The Dark Tower is a fantasy classic, and will be for years to come (provided that The Wind Through the Keyhole and any subsequent additions are up to scratch). 'Salem's Lot can reasonably stake its claim to be the best vampire novel of modern times. But it's when he's off-colour that the problems start: bloated middle sections (The Stand), rambling sequences, irritating protagonists and Song of Susannah are just some of the less good parts of his work.

King Junior (hereafter to be referred to as Joe Hill) has some of his father's habits. There's an easy readability to his style, which occasionally meanders when it doesn't need to. His characters seem to very much do their own thing and drive the story rather than events overtaking their importance. Pop culture references make more appearances than they probably need to.

But he's also got the knack of writing much tighter, focussed prose. Heart-Shaped Box isn't a short book (403 pages), but it has a drive to it and doesn't meander like some of King Senior's works, and there isn't the same lightness that seems to dog even King's heaviest works. The pacing is superb.

The book starts with Judas Coyne, ageing rock god, buying a ghost off the internet. As a concept for horror, it's not the most original, but it evolves from that point into a thoroughly engaging and suitably haunting ghost story. There's nothing fluffy to it either; don't have visions of gothic creepers in the night, this ghost is a hypnotic ex-soldier who twists minds and drives people to suicide. And it's out to get Judas Coyne.

It may not be my longest - or most coherent - review, but I appear to have managed it with 4 minutes to spare. Not bad.

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