No, he’s not Joe Hill, singer and labor activist, whose 1915 execution still stirs up controversy and debate. And he’s not Blind Joe Hill, West Virginian blues singer, or bearded Joe Hill, bassist with ZZ Top.
His full name is Joseph Hillstrom King, and he is the son of horror fiction royalty, the progenitor King in this instance is Stephen King, whose books have sold 350 million copies. Hill adopted his pseudonym out of a desire to succeed on his own, without the boost of an illustrious literary lineage to generate a ready-made audience. (By the way, his name does reflect a different connection to the past—he was named after the famous labor leader.)
Hill succeeded in keeping his real identity a secret for the first decade of his writing career. Well, more or less. As one fellow author grumbled: it was “the worst-kept secret in the history of secrets.” Rumors circulated, spurred both by a similarity in subject and style, as well as an equally marked resemblance in personal appearance. One glance at father and son, and the DNA match is pretty much confirmed. But when Hill sold the movie rights to Heart- Shaped Box to Warner Bros. in 2006, Variety announced that the author’s father was Stephen King, and the next year Hill publicly acknowledged his family ties. "I really wanted to allow myself to rise and fall on my own merits," he explained to the press. "One of the good things about it was that it let me make my mistakes in private."
Should he have kept his illustrious gene pool a secret? Don’t underestimate the downside of having a famous writer for a father. I could cite chapter and verse about children of literary masters I’ve known who never realized their own enormous potential because of the large shadow cast by a legendary parent. So I give Hill credit for putting himself into competition with the best—inviting comparisons that few authors would relish, even if they would enjoy the benefits of a relative’s renown or connections.
And not only does Joe Hill invite (and live up to, let me add) comparisons with his bestselling father in his debut novel, but he also takes the oldest—and, dare I say, the stalest?—horror subgenre, the ghost story, and makes it feel fresh and contemporary. Would you like to have the task of interesting an agent or editor in a ghost story in the 21st century? I’d pass on that. Or, put differently, if writing tasks were assigned degree of difficulty ratings, like platform dives and skating moves, Joe Hill maxed out on his maiden voyage.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that Hill’s first book deals with a son who changes his name, but finds himself drawn back into his past, in particular his relationship with his father. Justin Cowzynski has pursued a long, successful career as a doom metal musician in the mold of Ozzy and company (and I don’t mean Harriet, David and Ricky), but to grab an audience he needed a nastier name—eventually settling on the quasi-Biblical Judas Coyne, with its overtones of hanging and thirty pieces of silver. In this new guise, he enjoys gold records and goth groupies galore, and has now settled down to an unsettled middle-age, which is about to get even more unsettling.
You see, Judas has another thing in common with his author. Both have an interest in the occult. Coyne’s private collection includes a hangman’s noose, a witch’s confession and a chess set once owned by Aleister Crowley, but he’s always on the lookout for something new and creepy to add to the archive. His assistant Danny obliges him, one inauspicious morning, when he announces to his boss that a ghost is for sale on the Internet.
How can Coyne resist such an unusual offer. Check out the details:
"“I will 'sell' my stepfather’s ghost to the highest bidder," explains the web listing. "Of course a soul cannot really be sold, but I believe he will come to your home and abide with you if you put out the welcome mat….Do not think this is a stunt or a practical joke and that I will take your money and send you nothing. The winning bidder will have something solid to show for their investment. I will send you his Sunday suit. I believe that if his spirit is attached to anything, it has to be that."
Coyne is intrigued, and when he sees that the suit is his own exact size, he can’t resist. He puts in a thousand dollar offer, and a few days later the suit arrives in a black heart- shaped box, like something straight out of a Nirvana song.
Judas Coyne should have kept his pieces of silver, and passed on the suit. His life will never be the same, and not only will he be haunted by his web-bought ghost, but this spook is a vengeful one. As it turns out, the auction was a sly set-up. The ghost’s daughter was one of Coyne’s previous Goth groupies, now apparently dead from suicide, and our rock star has his own black Sabbath to deal with 24/7.
All this happens in the opening pages of Heart-Shaped Box. In fact, Hill moves so rapidly in setting up the main parameters of his story that readers justifiably wonder whether he can maintain the initial burst of energy that animates the opening chapters. But Hill has plenty of plot twists planned for the reader in the next 350 pages, and pushes his narrative ahead with nary a misstep. I’m hardly surprised that movie rights were snatched up so quickly, with Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) and Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) getting on board the project. This story is perfectly suited for cinematic treatment. Alas, Warner Bros. pulled the plug after Jordan finished the script, but recent word is that the studio has put the movie back into 'redevelopment'—whatever that means.
Yet readers don’t need to wait for Hollywood to get its act together. This is a first-rate genre novel, a book almost as accomplished as Hill’s father’s impressive debut Carrie, which launched Mr. King’s career three decades earlier. Carrie is a bit more advanced from the standpoint of structure—King doesn’t get credit for the intricate pointillistic style with dabs of stream-of-consciousness that distinguished his first book—but Hill gets top marks for character development and pacing.
The King family legacy can also be detected in the author’s confidence in moving beyond the familiar tropes of scary stories. Many writers in the horror genre see every character as either a victim or victimizer, and don’t know how to write a convincing scene that deals with romance, comedy or anything outside the realm of action and suspense. Strange to say, some of the best parts of a Stephen King novel have nothing to do with horror, but merely fill in a back story, or bring a character to life, or add a moment of comic relief. Joe Hill is much the same, and when he takes an apparent detour in this novel to discuss, say, groupies or heavy metal, he handles these interludes just as deftly as he does the dramatic entanglements with supernatural forces.
But choosing between the father and son is splitting hairs. The highest praise I could apply to Heart-Shaped Box is the simple statement that, if this book had been attributed to the father instead of the son, it would rank among Stephen King’s finer works.
Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz from Basic Books.
Publication Date: December 17, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading. I am reading the classics of horror fiction during the course of 2016, and each week will write about a significant work in the genre. You are invited to join me in my annus horribilis. During the course of the year—if we survive—we will have tackled zombies, serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and monsters of all denominations. Check back each week for a new title...but remember to bring along garlic, silver bullets and a protective amulet. Ted Gioia