Halloween Series: “Heart-Shaped Box” + “The Brief History of The Dead”

My family owns a physical therapy clinic.  My parents both work there – dad as a physical therapist, mom as a RN.  At some point during our teenage years, my sisters and I each had part-time jobs there doing office tasks.  While I was growing up, I’m pretty sure that every adult I ever had contact with asked me at least once, “Are you gonna become a physical therapist when you grow up & take over the clinic for your folks?”

My answer never wavered from a hard no.  “But why?” the bewildered adults invariably asked.

“I want to do my own thing,” I would try to explain.  Some would understand; others would give me a blank, uncomprehending look.  But I suppose they were from the generation where it was expected for children to join the family business.

Wrapping up my Halloween series, this week I read Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill.  This book tells the story of Jude Coyne, an aging rock star who buys a ghost online on a whim.  But when the ghost actually arrives & tries to kill him, he’s got to confront the past in order to figure out how to survive.

Joe Hill (a.k.a. Joseph Hillstrom King) is the son of Stephen King, & as the author of four horror novels, a scary short story collection, & the chiller comic book series Locke & Key, he has indeed carried on the family business.

Stephen King & Joe Hill

Stephen King & Joe Hill

I had no idea of the family relationship when I picked up Heart-Shaped Box.  I’ve written previously about my struggles with Stephen King, so I’d be lying if I said I didn’t reconsider reading this book because of it.  But I did see the movie adaptation of Horns, & I got the impression that there was probably a stronger story in the book behind the film, so I decided I would do my best to judge Hill on his own merits.

And you know what?  It’s not bad!  I read it in a single sitting & never once started thinking about doing something else.  Is it the best book I’ve ever read?  No.  Is it in the top fifty?  No.  Although I didn’t find it particularly scary, I was never bored with it.  And it definitely didn’t give me that feeling I always get with King’s books of “this is too silly for me to keep suspending my disbelief.”

I’ve spent this week trying to nail down exactly why that is.  Why should buying a ghost off the internet be easier to believe than a turtle spirit who created the universe?  And I think the key is in how many fantastical elements are being used at once.

King’s stories have layers of mythology that account not only for the origin of the universe, but also dimensions beyond space & time.  His books use a supernatural element on top of another supernatural element on top of (wait for it…) another supernatural element, & it just gets to be too much.  I’ve heard that Hill jumps in on his dad’s lore in NOS4A2 (haven’t read it, so I can’t verify), but in Heart-Shaped Box, he just has ghosts.  Simple.  Relatable.

I can suspend my disbelief for ghosts.  Giant space spiders?  Not so much.

Author Joe Hill

Author Joe Hill

After I finished Heart-Shaped Box, I checked out the Goodreads reviews.  Basically it seemed to me that the people who didn’t like the book were mostly disappointed that Joe Hill isn’t Stephen King, & while everyone is certainly entitled to their opinions, I don’t think that’s very fair.  How many of us would really want to be indistinguishable from our parent’s shadow?

This is still a supernatural horror story, but with a different flavor than a King tale.  So what if it’s not outrageous, blow-your-mind original?  It’s a solidly-written book, & as long as he continues to follow the family business in his own way, I can tell you that my future holds more of Joe Hill’s books than Stephen King’s.

Two minor points:

  1. Hill never really describes Jude physically, so my mind settled on a Mick Jagger-type person.  But then like 2/3 of the way through the book, he mentions that he has a big beard.  I felt like my imagination got slammed into reverse as it tried to retcon everything I’d pictured before that point.
  2. The exact same issue, but with the dogs.  Jude has two dogs named Angus & Bon. We know early on that they’re big dogs because he has trouble controlling them when they try to attack the mailman who delivers the ghost’s box, but Hill never describes them.  Because of their names, I decided on big hound dogs, like coonhounds or something.  Nope, eventually we find out that they’re German shepherds.  Imagination = reverse, retcon.

book cover, "the brief history of the dead" by kevin brockmeier

For the final book of my Halloween series, I chose The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier.  This book begins with an excerpt from James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, which explains the foundation of the story:

Many African societies divide humans into three categories: those still alive on earth, the sasha, and the zamani.  The recently departed whose time on earth overlapped with people still here are the sasha, the living-dead.  They are not wholly dead, for they still live in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art, and bring them to life in anecdote.  When the last person to know an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani, the dead.  As generalized ancestors, the zamani are not forgotten but revered.  Many…can be recalled by name.  But they are not living-dead.  There is a difference.

I admit that I judged this book by its cover when I chose it for my Halloween series, but it turns out that judgment was completely off the mark.  The Brief History of the Dead tells the intertwining stories of the City, where the recently-departed reside, & Laura Byrd, a researcher stranded in Antarctica.  Although it deals with the dead, this introspective book is really about life & second chances & how humans need other humans.

This is another book I read in one sitting without ever considering putting it down.  Following the excerpt (which is a really wonderful addition because it allows Brockmeier to skip a lot of exposition), the book jumps right into stories of the City’s inhabitants & how they got there.  I was pretty much hooked from the start.

Though it goes a bit off the deep end towards the finish, & it will likely leave you swearing off Coca-Cola for the rest of your life, this is a positive, thoughtful story that I think just about everyone would enjoy.

My verdict:

Heart-Shaped Box = sure, if you like the genre

The Brief History of the Dead = heck yes

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Author images intended for editorial use only.

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