Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

Tag: joe hill

When I first researched graduate school, what seems like all those years ago, one of the first things I did was order books from faculty members at every institution that caught my interest. Some great programs, like Johns Hopkins and Iowa, I had dismissed early because they hadn’t seemed to jibe with my direction, which left places like North Carolina and somewhere in Arizona. I don’t remember all the institutions, and only a few of the authors.

I didn’t have to do that this time around. This time around, NYU came to me with the same certainty as USC; all that’s left is getting in.

Which meant I felt I should familiarize myself with some of the work of some of the faculty members, the stand-outs of whom include E.L. Doctorow and Jonathan Safran Foer. Neither of whom I’ve ever read. Nothing against them, just never seemed like my thing; I’d rather read Neil Gaiman and Harry Potter and Joe Hill, most of the time. For me, the novels whose scope doesn’t stretch much beyond characters coping with ordinary lives have never really excited me so much. I’ve tried reading guys like Tom Wolfe and John Updike, and I generally feel decidedly meh about them. I hate to call it “serious” fiction, if only because it seems to imply that people like Gaiman and Rowling aren’t serious about writing and stories, and I think that’s foolhardy. I’d hate, too, though, to attempt to claim it’s all about marketing, because it’s really not.

Before this becomes a discussion of genre in fiction, though, let’s move on to the reading. Because the first book I picked up was Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

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I came late to Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, but as they say, better than never, anyway, because holy shit is it a good book.

I’m not sure why I never picked it up before; I’m familiar enough with Hill’s family that I probably should have based on that alone. You see, Hill’s real name is Joseph Hillstrom King. He is the son of Stephen (yes, that Stephen King) and the brother of Owen, which means that his father’s Needful Things is the reason I’m a writer, and I’ve shaken his brother’s hand and heard him read. On the other hand, that was probably Joe’s intention; he dropped his surname in favor of an abbreviated version of his middle name to distance himself from his family’s legacy. To which I really only say two things: why?, and mission accomplished.

Actually, that’s a bit disingenuous; I sort of get why he might (though I don’t know how I should refer to him? King? Hill? I’m going to go with Just Joe, if only because I don’t think he’d mind. Also: because this is one of those rare novels that makes you want to have a drink with its author, and for that reason alone it is fine). His brother Owen’s novella/collection, We’re All in this Together, was terrific on its own but markedly different from anything his father might have written; Heart-Shaped Box, on the other hand, is not so much, though that doesn’t mean it isn’t as good. In fact, it’s awesome.

Heart-Shaped Box‘s premise is simple; an aging rockstar named Judas Coyne buys a haunted suit off of an eBay-knockoff site, and chill-inducing story ensues. To tell you many details would be to give too much away; suffice to say, what makes H-SB so truly excellent is that it’s not just a ghost story; it’s a story about haunting, and all the different things that can haunt a person, in as many ways as a person can be haunted. Judas is a haunted man, but he’s haunted long before the ghost shows up; by his former career, by his family, by his past, by his former lovers . . .

The novel is partly confronting the ghost (as any good ghost story ought and need be), but also about confronting the past, and confronting yourself, and that’s why it ends up becoming more than the sum of its words. As I said, I get why Just Joe published away from the King legacy; there are marks of King all over this book, from its pop culture references to its repetition of certain phrases to its ghost itself. When the ghost tells Jude it wants to “ride the nightroad,” well, if that doesn’t conjure early-era Stephen King, you must not have read him back then. Nowadays it’s all “smucking” and lame-o Lisey or whathaveyou, but Stephen King used to be able to write the bejesus out of most stories, and Just Joe has certainly inherited that trait.

The book is not perfect, mind you; the ending, I thought, was particularly flawed, but then again, that’s another mark of Stephen, who can tell stories better than anyone else until he gets to the end. But besides that, there are so many subtle touches, so many graceful notes . . . it really does work. And though it wasn’t a book I couldn’t put down, it was a book whose characters I cared about when I did, and that, I think, is even more important. Just Joe’s descriptions of his characters can border on too spare, but that ends up working because I ended up conjuring them in my head; I’m not sure there ever was a full-on, dead-to-rights description of Judas Coyne, but still I feel like I know the guy. Hell, more than that, I feel like I’ve listened to his music, and that, that, right there, is a sort of sleight of hand most writers simply cannot pull off.

Also, that I can say you totally need to read the Acknowledgements section is another coup. I mean, how often do you say that? “Dude, the book was awesome. And the acknowledgements page? Totally rocked.”

Yes, well done sir. Well done indeed.

I know I’m supposed to rate the book, because I always see book reviews doing so, so, on a scale of Black Rain to Paranoid, I’m giving it a “Crazy Train.”

Click the link to buy the book at

Heart-Shaped Box: A Novel

This, I think, would be the Internet’s definition of humility.

For the most part.

(Neil Gaiman muses on his spot at #3 on this list.)

Actually, I think Neil’s right. The list seems a little… off. I mean, J.R.R. “motherfuckers walking, my novel’s are the literary definition of plot coupon” Tolkien at number 2?

I do like Pratchett, though.

My top five, in no particular order, would be Neil, Terry, Stephen King, Jo Rowling, and Jonathan Carroll. With a further five to Joe Hill, Jo Walton, Richard Cox, Will Shetterly, and Audrey Niffenegger.

And here I thought yesterday’s search was the funny one. I hadn’t seen anything yet, apparently:

My only comment is I hope whoever it was found whatever he or she was looking for.

Also, I’ve decided a further use for et cetera: I’m going to keep a running booklog there, with reviews. Put the first one up today: Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, which I thought was pretty damned brilliant (I ended up rating it a “Crazy Train.” You’ll have to read the review to find out what that means. But it makes sense if you do).

Anyway, probably quiet this weekend; lots of horrible writing to do.