by Joe Hill
I was so impressed a third of the way into this novel that I was ready to proclaim it as one of the best supernatural horror stories I’d ever read. Predictably, now I’ve reached the end, I’ve tempered my enthusiasm somewhat. However, this is still a superb debut that’s well worth reading.
Published in the UK in about six weeks (but already available in the US I believe) the premise concerns Judas Coyne, an ageing singer from a popular goth-metal band who is also a collector of gruesome and macabre paraphernalia, such as a full set of paintings of Disney’s Seven Dwarfs by serial killer John Wayne Gacy and an authentic Mexican snuff movie. When Coyne learns that someone is selling a ghost over an Internet auction site he is intrigued enough to buy it for a paltry $1000 – and, in return, receives a dead man’s dusty black suit in a heart-shaped box.
Thankfully this is no ‘is it? / isn’t it?’ tale, with the narrative meandering ambiguously for a hundred pages or so before anything is actually confirmed. No, this ghost is decidedly real – and it’s a truly malevolent spirit, whose identity and connection to Judas are quickly established. The beauty of the early part of this story is the inherent creepiness and sense of eerie momentum that’s established, and if only the author had chosen to set the entire novel in the dark, claustrophobic interior of Judas’s home – with the central character and his girlfriend Georgia relentlessly terrified by their spectral adversary – then it could all have worked wonderfully. Unfortunately the second half of the book sees Judas and Georgia take to the road with the ghost in pursuit, with much of the tension spooling out in the bright light of day, and the ultimate denouement is a disappointing set piece revolving around both a mystical deux ex machina and a somewhat inexplicable shift from the supernatural to a Michael Myers slasher scene, the latter of which seems to be a pre-requisite for every horror novel or film these days.
This aside, I’d still recommend this book. The writing style is excellent, very fluid and pitched perfectly in terms of pace and descriptive prose, and I devoured chapters at high speed always interested in what was coming next. The characters are also well constructed, building from unpromising beginnings – neither Judas or Georgia are particularly likeable – to a point where I was genuinely concerned for them. And, whilst there are some pesky plot holes, there’s nothing so nagging or nonsensical that it spoils the overall enjoyment. Joe Hill is a real talent, and I’ll definitely be reading his next novel whenever that might be. It’s just a shame that – in a fashion that has sadly become accepted practise – subtle, supernatural eeriness is sacrificed for widescreen harum scarum, almost as if the author had half a mind on what it would take to sell the story on for the film rights.
(Note: There’s a certain something about this writer that will inevitably be considered important enough to dominate most reviews. I’ve chosen to ignore it here as I think the novel deserves to stand on its own, without hyperbole and fanfare. So, before anyone comments with the phrase “You do know Joe Hill is [blank}, right?”: Yes, I do know, thank you. I just don’t believe it’s significant.)