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Secrets of a son

March 11, 2007|Dale Bailey | Dale Bailey is the author of several books, including the novels "House of Bones" and "The Fallen."

LIKE most ghost stories, Joe Hill's debut novel, "Heart-Shaped Box" (William Morrow: 376 pp., $24.95), is a meditation on the past -- its dangers, its temptations, its penchant for warping the present into a mirror of long-ago traumas.

The novel's hero, a washed-up rock star born Justin Cowzynski, strives above all to let "the past be past." But his stage name -- Judas Coyne -- belies such aspirations, embodying instead his guilt over the mother he rejected to attain "the worthless coin of his [abusive] father's affection." His entourage -- his assistant, his lawyer, the succession of live-in groupies whom he christens by their state of origin -- is similarly afflicted. When Jude, a collector of occult oddities, purchases a haunted suit at an online auction site, he unleashes the vengeful ghost of Craddock McDermott, stepfather to "Florida," one of Jude's spurned lovers who has since committed suicide. In the genuinely gripping tale that follows, Jude and everyone around him must reckon with the secrets they have so long repressed.

Ironically, Hill also began his career by distancing himself from the past. Perhaps the finest story in his story collection "20th Century Ghosts" is "My Father's Mask," an enigmatic portrait of fraught father-son relationships that took on a still more haunting dimension when fans outed Hill as Stephen King's son. It's hard not to read "Heart-Shaped Box" in that context. In Hill's depiction of a man burdened by fame -- a man who longs "to be himself, not a trademark" -- one can't help but hear the lament of a boy who grew up longing to escape his father's renown. "Heart-Shaped Box" is so powerful and compelling that Hill's reputation is virtually assured. In stepping out of the shadow of his father's celebrity, Joe Hill may find that he has stepped into the shadow of his own.

-- Dale Bailey

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