Title: Heart-Shaped Box
Author: Joe Hill
Review Number: 2
Stand Alone or Series: Stand alone novel
Summary: (from HeartShapedBoxBook.com)
Judas Coyne is a collector of the macabre: a cookbook for cannibals . . . a used hangman’s noose . . . a snuff film. An aging death-metal rock god, his taste for the unnatural is as widely known to his legions of fans as the notorious excesses of his youth. But nothing he possesses is as unlikely or as dreadful as his latest discovery, an item for sale on the Internet, a thing so terribly strange, Jude can’t help but reach for his wallet.
I will “sell” my stepfather’s ghost to the highest bidder. . . .
For a thousand dollars, Jude will become the proud owner of a dead man’s suit, said to be haunted by a restless spirit. He isn’t afraid. He has spent a lifetime coping with ghosts—of an abusive father, of the lovers he callously abandoned, of the bandmates he betrayed. What’s one more?
But what UPS delivers to his door in a black heart-shaped box is no imaginary or metaphorical ghost, no benign conversation piece. It’s the real thing.
And suddenly the suit’s previous owner is everywhere: behind the bedroom door . . . seated in Jude’s restored vintage Mustang . . . standing outside his window . . . staring out from his widescreen TV. Waiting—with a gleaming razor blade on a chain dangling from one bony hand. . . .
A multiple-award winner for his short fiction, author Joe Hill immediately vaults into the top echelon of dark fantasists with a blood-chilling roller-coaster ride of a novel, a masterwork brimming with relentless thrills and acid terror.
Why did I read the book: Cheesy blurb aside, I had my eye on this book for a while and had heard good things about it from readers, and authors alike (Scott Smith and Neil Gaiman among them). Wasn’t too crazy about buying it (since I’m loathe to cough up the extra money and purchase books in hardcover form unless I know they are good), but when I got it as a Christmas present, I decided to give it a shot.
I am a huge fan of horror stories. Stephen King is one of my favorite authors, and one of the reasons is because he makes the mundane terrifying, whether it is the boogeyman as a carnival clown, or phantoms haunting a secluded hotel. Mr. Hill (who I just recently discovered is Stephen King’s son) treads similar waters by taking on a classic ghost story and attempting to place his own spin on it. As this is the author’s first novel, I have to say I am impressed. As a debut, this book is certainly a strong entry. It is written well, and Mr. Hill certainly has a firm handle on traditional ghost stories.
It was entertaining and at times suspenseful…but it falls short of ever being truly scary, and can hardly be described as original.
Judas Coyne is an aging metal legend, who also happens to be an avid collector of morbid mementos, as well as a collector of young, disturbed goth girls. Living with current flavor of the month Georgia (he sentimentally categorizes his girls by the name of the state they are from), Jude is notified of an online auction for a dead man’s suit…and his ghost. Jude bids immediately, and wins the suit and complimentary ghost, which arrives at his house in titled heart-shaped box. Strange, ghostly events ensue.
After discovering that the ghost in the suit is the real deal, Jude and Georgia begin a frantic investigation—who sent the suit and why? How do you stop the ghost? In the grand tradition of horror clichés, nothing is as advertised at first glance. The auction wasn’t exactly random—a scorned former plaything of Jude’s, driven to suicide, is being avenged by her creepy family in the ghost of dead stepfather Craddock. Enter dramatic, numerous flashbacks to Jude and Florida (the dead girl). The story takes off from this revelation, when Jude realizes that he must travel to Florida and figure out how to vanquish the ghost. Armed with his loyal doggies—as animal familiars that can attack Craddock—Jude and Georgia set off in their sweet ’65 blue mustang in a frenzied rush south.
So far as ghost stories go, this is pretty run-of-the-mill. I won’t spoil it for you, but you can see the ending coming from a mile away. As a storyteller, Mr. Hill does a decent job. The pacing is quick, although the story tends to jump around in stutters and starts. There is a tendency to follow tangential subplots that don’t contribute much to the original story, which gets irritating at points when it interrupts the impending action. Also, the overuse of clichés—the daddy issues Jude has (*gags* Why is it always daddy issues?), the abused little girl backstory, the use of an Ouija board to contact helpful spirits—bugs. The final showdown after so much tension and buildup hardly lives up to expectations and instead peters out with a predictable whimper. The plot simply failed to live up to its potential as a true scary story.
Lack of originality aside, Mr. Hill does an exceptional job with characterization. His Judas Coyne begins as an apathetic, cold sort of character. He is rich, has women at his disposal, and yet is not happy and listlessly flounders in self-sympathy. Over the course of the story, however, Jude gains color and complexity, becoming more human as the frenetic race for his (and Georgia’s) life nears its endpoint. Georgia—Marybeth, that is—also experiences the same wonderful revelation as a character. From a snotty, seemingly empty-headed groupie, Mr. Hill slowly peels away her abrasive outer shell and realizes a touching, strong woman underneath. This is Mr. Hill’s gift, and what separates him from his father’s work. While Stephen King can create intricate plots involving multiple (but not usually very developed) characters, Joe Hill has the ability to give characters realistic coloring and an individual flair. As this is only Mr. Hill’s first book, I will be keeping an eye out for subsequent work to see if this hypothesis is proven.
In the end, Mr. Hill looks to be a highly talented writer with a bright future ahead of him. Being the son of “America’s Greatest Storyteller” is no doubt a daunting act to follow, but this author has a clear voice that should distinguish him from his father. While this book isn’t exactly an instant classic, it is enjoyable and better than a lot of the newer entries in the genre.
Notable quotes/parts: The initial appearances of Craddock as a ghost are vivid and creepy. There’s also a portion involving a young girl’s ghost picking flowers before being abducted that gives some good chills. Also, I’ve always been a sucker for parts of the story where the protagonist conducts research about their ghostly problem (don’t ask. I guess I like research), and Jude’s pokings about in Craddock’s past is pretty cool.
Additional Thoughts: Joe Hill’s choice of portrayal in ghosts’ appearances is interesting. Every author (or movie, for that matter) puts their own spin on apparitions and how they would look or behave. Mr. Hill, being a younger author, adds a younger image by showing his ghosts with squiggly lines flickering before their eyes (kinda like The Ring, where viewers would have distorted faces captured by miscellaneous cameras). It’s interesting to see how the idea of ghosts, their abilities and their appearances have changed from the typical transparent wandering specter (which is now comical or cutesy—think Harry Potter) to something more concrete and humanoid. Just something interesting to think about.
Verdict: Worth reading and owning, but wait for the paperback edition.
Rating: 6 Good, recommend with reservations
Reading next: The Duke and I