Sometime in 2004, I was convinced Stephen King had finally lost it. I had just finished reading the final volumes of the septet, The Dark Tower, and was disappointed enough to wish that someone—a Neil Gaiman or Clive Barker, maybe—would one day revisit and rewrite the later novels of the series as a homage of sorts to a great man.
Heart Shaped Box: William Morrow, 368 pages, Rs505
Halfway through the seven books, King was nearly killed in a car accident and, perhaps out of an awareness of his own mortality, had written himself into the later books. The artifice didn’t work.
The first King books I read were those he wrote as Richard Bachman (including Thinner and The Bachman Books). One of these, Rage, is probably the finest story ever written about a school shooter, but this isn’t the best time to bring up that subject. The books were dark, and King let on later that he considered Bachman his dark half.
Much later, in the 1990s, he wrote a book called The Dark Half, which is about a writer who buries his pseudonym, a dark half, only to have it, or him, come alive. That book had a happy ending just like most other Kings of the 1990s did. It was, to use a phrase the man was particularly fond of, the coming of the white. Evil lost, good won, and all was well with the world.
As it turns out, King was rediscovering his art in the later books of The Dark Tower. His work since then, including The Cell and Lisey’s Story, is far better than anything he wrote in the 1990s. They are missing the darkness that pervades his earlier works, though.
Darkness, it transpires, doesn’t have a half-life. It doesn’t dissipate into nothingness. Nor does it turn into light. It just moves on till it finds its next medium. In King’s case, it didn’t have to travel far.
Stephen King: These genes have a dark side
I would have probably ended up buying Joe Hill’s Heart Shaped Box anyway; it had Neil Gaiman recommending it strongly and in the neck of the woods I go to when I read, Gaiman is the man. Ajit at the bookstore pre-empted things by waving the book in front of me and saying, “Read it; it’s by Stephen King’s son.”
Turns out Joe Hill is that. Ajit claimed Hill’s publishers had leaked the fact out to ensure the book sold; Google tells me that Variety magazine scooped the story in late 2006 and that Hill had no option but to admit his parentage.
Heart Shaped Box is about a (hard) rock star who buys a ghost on the Internet. Not just any ghost, but one that’s out to get even with him for some real or perceived ill done in the past (and, as we all know, even rock stars have pasts). The book is about how he gets out alive and sane, if he does that. The premise isn’t a new one, except for the buying-the-ghost-on-the-Internet bit. And King’s fans will likely have reason to believe they have read it all before. So, why are we wasting precious real estate on the book?
Because it’s written well, balancing the horror writer’s need to shock and surprise and frighten with the good writer’s dislike of all things hysterical. Because Hill takes a tested plot, puts in more tested stuff about child abuse, and still manages to make the book seem different. Because Heart Shaped Box has some really nice touches, like the snuff film that is probably diseased.
Because Hill is the kind of writer who doesn’t believe stories should end with a big-bang climax, and instead prefers to dwell a little on what comes later. Hill’s books may never reach the level of sheer horror that some of King’s works did, but they are still dark, and very well-written dark at that.
That’s another thing about darkness; it touches different people differently.