Monday, October 28, 2013

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill details the haunting of aging musician Judas Coyne in a truly terrifying ghost story. Until I started reading Joe Hill’s books and comics series, it had been a really long time since I had been actually scared by a book. Growing up, I was always able to read anything in books, it didn’t matter how gross or gory or scary it was. Conversely, I totally could not see gross, gory, or scary on TV or in movies, and at the movie theatre would be the worst thing ever. There were even a handful of book covers that I did not even want to hold onto while I read the story itself, because they were actually too terrifying. I remember when I was nineteen, my boyfriend at the time covered my copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in wrapping paper to mask the stitched together smile on the front, possibly the worst book cover ever. I was absolutely terrified by some parts of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, a Jack the Ripper book by Gregory Maguire (who wrote Wicked) called Lost, and Celia Rees’s young adult novel Witch Child, but a lot of time passed between reading those books and finding another book that actually scared me.

Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box did that for me. Main character Judas Coyne used to tour with his death-metal band, and collected a following of fans that continue to send him packages in the mail, filled with the gothic, the gory, and the macabre. He adds these items to his growing collection in his sprawling farmhouse that he shares with his girlfriend, his two dogs Angus and Bon, and his personal assistant Danny. One day, a package arrives at his house looking like any other: a gothic parcel with a collector’s item to add to his strange household museum. He receives a black heart-shaped box with a man’s suit folded inside. Thinking nothing of it, Judas doesn’t pay too much attention to the package, not until he realizes that something else has traveled along with the clothing: the ghost of the dead man who it belonged to.

Opening the heart-shaped box sets off the most horrifying chain of events. Hill’s depiction of Judas’s haunting is so terrifying, drawing together elements of violence, horror, hypnotism, Judas’s past relationships, and death. The supporting characters in this book were actually the highlight for me. Judas’s current girlfriend Georgia (he eschews all of his girlfriends’ names for the state that they’re from) is an amazing character, and I loved that there was such a great female perspective alongside Judas’s. Even Judas’s two dogs are central to the story itself, and how Judas steps in and out of relationships – between his assistant, his girlfriend, his dogs, his fans – is consistently on display in this novel.

Even though I just read Heart-Shaped Box a few months ago, if there was any book that I’d want to read for Halloween, this would be it, and I might even give it a re-read just for the holiday.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Locke and Key by Joe Hill

Locke and Key is the Eisner-award winning series written by Joe Hill (son of horror writer Stephen King) and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez (who has also collaborated with Clive Barker). It is by far my favorite horror series and it concludes at the end of this month. Locke and Key follows the Locke family – Bode, Kinsey, and Tyler – as they move with their mom (Nina) to the Keyhouse in Lovecraft, Massachusetts following the murder of their father. The Keyhouse is a sprawling New England mansion under the care of their Uncle Duncan, and it’s replete with a mysterious well-house, various rooms, and magical doors. Locke and Key is collected into five volumes so far: Welcome to Lovecraft, Head Games, Crown of Shadows, Keys to the Kingdom, and Clockworks. The sixth and final volume comes out early next year. As the series progresses, Bode, Kinsey, and Tyler learn more about the history of the house, and about the “something evil” that has returned to haunt the Locke family once again.

It is impossible not to note the focus on horror in Locke and Key, even if just observing the backgrounds of the writer and illustration: Joe Hill is the son of horror writer Stephen King, and Gabriel Rodriguez has collaborated with noted horror writer Clive Barker. It is genuinely scary, and that makes it even more fun to read.

The series often depicts graphic violence that is reinforced by suspense and anticipation. The subject material is mature – Mr. Locke, the father of Bode, Kinsey, and Tyler, is murdered by an unhinged high school student at the beginning of the story. His murder is, in part, a result of an offhand comment Tyler made at school about wishing someone would kill his father, one that will forever haunt him and wrack him with guilt.

But then there is also the strange spirit who haunts the bottom of the well in the well-house (a character later revealed as “Dodge”), who appeals to Bode in an attempt to free herself from her prison. She has no qualms about moving people like chess pieces, placing them in positions where they can do the most, and most horrific, harm. For example, she orchestrates the release of Sam Lesser, the teenager who murdered Mr. Locke, and his murder-spree that brings him to Lovecraft in Welcome to Lovecraft.

Keyhouse is in the fictional Lovecraft, Massachusetts, and Hill’s setting of the series is very deliberate. Massachusetts has a rich historical background; as the site of early American colonies, Hill has access to a historical context that goes back to the 1600s. He engages with this history through several flashbacks throughout the series, including to the Revolutionary War. Since the Locke family has always safeguarded Keyhouse, the characters that star in the flashbacks are distantly related to Bode, Kinsey, and Tyler. Their father, murdered in the beginning of the series, is the focus of a long arc set in the 1980s.

One interesting feature of the series is the introduction of a new key and its function as the story progresses. The Keyhouse is filled with keys, some hidden, some right out in the open. Bode finds many of the keys through his exploration of the house, however, Kinsey and Tyler pick up their share of keys as well. The keys also provide one of the key motivations of Dodge, the evil spirit who lives in the well-house. He/she (the spirit shifts between man and woman throughout the series) is searching for the Omega key, which will open “The Black Door” and release the evil inside.

In “Head Games” there is a Head Key that unlocks the back of the characters’ heads, and allows them to put things in and take things out. Kinsey is able to better deal with her grief and unhappiness by taking out everything that is making her sad, while Dodge uses the head key to remove old memories of himself from an older woman.

I have absolutely loved reading Locke and Key over the last few years, especially for Hill’s truly terrifying storytelling.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

I was really trying to hold off on reading Holly Black’s new book, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, until closer to Halloween. The book, about seventeen-year-old Tana, imagines a world where Coldtowns have sprung up across the United States to contain cities contaminated by large numbers of vampires. These include, for example, Springfield, MA, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Chicago, and New Orleans. I ended up reading the book almost the day it came out in September, although I managed to hold off on writing a review until closer to Halloween.

Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown single-handedly revives the YA vampire story and shows the potential to make vampires truly terrifying again. It is the perfect late-October book and epitomizes a nightmarish feel; anything seems possible, especially horrors and terrors coming to life. As well, this book review is going to kick off a series of scary book reviews, from children’s to young adult to adult.

Tana’s story begins in the bathroom of a house party the morning after it has ended. She wakes up disoriented and confused:

Tana woke up lying in a bathtub. Her legs were drawn up, her cheek pressed against the cold metal of the faucet. A slow drip had soaked the fabric on her shoulder and wetted locks of her hair. The rest of her, including her clothes, was still completely dry, which was kind of a relief. Her neck felt stiff; her shoulders ached. She looked up dazedly at the ceiling, at the blots of mold grown into Rorschach patterns. For a moment, she felt completely disoriented. Then she scrambled up onto her knees, skin sliding on the enamel, and pushed aside the shower curtain.

What Tana finds on the other side of the curtain is worse than she could have ever imagined. The house and its inhabitants have been torn apart by vampires, and Black is not afraid to detail the realities of this new world and the horrors within. After discovering that her ex-boyfriend – the incredibly endearing Aidan – has been turned into a vampire, and after saving a much, much, much older vampire named Gavriel from being captured, Tana voluntarily goes with the both of them to the nearest Coldtown. Tana says of the Springfield, MA Coldtown where they are headed, “It’s like the Hotel California…Or a roach motel. Roaches check in but they don’t check out.”

On the surface, it seems like there is little reason for Tana to tie her fate to a pair of vampires, but as the story progresses and Tana’s backstory is unwound, the reasons why she seeks the Coldtown become more evident. Not only does Tana fear that she might have been infected herself at the house party, but she has witnessed the slow transition from human to vampire before and she knows that it is better to be in a Coldtown than at home with her father and her sister. Still, the implications of checking into a Coldtown are severe: “All infected people and captured vampires were sent to Coldtowns, and sick, sad, or deluded humans went there voluntarily. It was supposed to be a constant party, free for the price of blood. But once people were inside, humans – even human children, even babies born in Coldtown – weren’t allowed to leave.”

Black slowly reveals the former relationship between Aidan and Tana (before he turned into an ex-boyfriend), the history of Coldtowns and the rise of vampires, and Tana’s own complicated family life, impacting how the reader views these characters in the immediate now that the story takes place in. It is a very tightly written story, and every decision made and every character trait stems directly from a source that Black reveals as the story progresses.

Tana is one of those protagonists who makes choices, decisions, and mistakes that sometimes don’t make sense to the reader, but because she is so sure of them, she seems very in control of her story. She reminded me of Robin McKinley’s female protagonist in Sunshine, but I found the context of The Coldest Girl in Coldtown (the concept of the Coldtowns alone really interested me) much more intriguing. This story is equal parts alternative history, love story, and adventure, all bound together by Black’s incredible protagonist. It is certainly a book that I hope to return to every year around this time, especially for its potential to really tell a scary story.