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Book Review: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

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Joe Hill is a pseudonym. Most everyone, editors and the book-reading public, know that he’s actually Stephen King’s son. It was never a well-kept secret except when he was doing award-winning short stories. His skill as a writer, a good writer, was a better kept secret because as everyone knows very few short story writers really get a lot of notice.

All that changes with the publication of that new writer’s first novel if he or she hits one out of the park. Joe Hill has done exactly that with his first book.

The premise of Heart-Shaped Box is deceptively simple. It sucked me right in. Imagine in this day and age of being able to buy anything and everything on-line that you could buy a ghost. What kind of ghost would you get? A chain-rattler? A friendly ghost?

More than likely, you wouldn’t get what you were planning on. And if the characters had in the novel, the excitement and borrowed fear would never have kicked in.

Even with a premise like this, I wasn’t convinced that Joe Hill, no matter whose son he was, could pull off an entertaining story. Even with the legacy and the premise, I put off getting the book for a while.

And for time, while reading the novel, I wasn’t convinced I’d spent my money wisely. Of course, book readers aren’t so much worried about the money they spend on a book as much as they are the time they spend on a book. I just don’t get that many free evenings to read, and each one is precious to me.

Hill’s prose flows smoothly but he didn’t seem to be going anywhere very fast at the beginning of the book. I got bored from time to time and just wished he would get on with the story. To make matters worse, I didn’t like his main characters.

Judas Coyne, called Jude by his friends, is an aging rock-and-roller whose days on a stage are gone. He’s in his early fifties and has become pretty much a social cripple. He’s not interested in meeting people anymore and he has all the money he needs. The only thing they gets him up in the mornings is his dogs.

But it’s during this early section that I found out how horrible Jude’s life was when he was a child. How it had shaped him. I understood why he was the way he was, but I still didn’t really care. He didn’t have anything to prove to himself, and he didn’t have anything to prove to me.

It wasn’t until his personal assistant bought the dead man’s suit on eBay that the story really started picking up the pace and getting more interesting. The menace was there, lingering on every page, but not really picking up the momentum for a while.

During this time, the reader also discovers that Jude has a live-in lover who’s half his age and appears to be every bit as emotionally damaged as he is. Jude calls her Georgia, but her name is really Mary Beth. She was a stripper and a band groupie when Jude found her. Their relationship is tempestuous and rocky.

But the ghost of Craddock McDermott quickly terrorizes and unites them. The ghost was the stepfather of another young woman that Jude took as a live-in lover. He called that young woman Florida, but her real name was Anna. What Jude discovers is that Anna slit her wrists in the bathtub after he made her go back home.

Anna’s sister, Jessica, sold the suit on eBay to set the trap for Jude. Jessica and her dead stepfather blame Jude for Anna’s death. Craddock McDermott has come back from the grave for vengeance.

Even with the hook set and knowing that Jude was facing the worst thing that ever happened to him in his life, the interest level for the novel had not peaked for me. It wasn’t until Jude and Mary Beth got on the road and tried to outrun the ghost that things really started get interesting.

At first all the action seemed to be merely rote. The things that Jude did would be expected of anyone trapped in the same fictional situation. However, somewhere in there Jude and Mary Beth came alive to me. They weren’t merely dysfunctional people anymore. They became people I cared about because they started to care about each other. Once that happened, everything mattered.

That change in my opinion is indicative of the level of writing that Joe Hill is capable of. As a young writer I think he deliberately gave his readers characters they wouldn’t care about, people that most readers with felt were unworthy of the time they spend with them, just so he could redeem them. He twisted all those views and those negative feelings into something strong and passionate. That’s the writer’s gift, and is probably what he picked up from the best of his father’s books.

Heart-Shaped Box makes a lot of familiar moves to confirmed horror readers. But that’s the author just making sense within the fictional story. The writing may feel a trifle overdone, but Hill’s prose builds atmosphere and narrative tension in the latter half of the book that makes the story just sing along at a frenetic pace.

If Hill hadn’t taken the time with the characters in the first half of the book, I wouldn’t have cared as deeply about them by the end. Too many times writers depend on action to carry a story forward. Hill depends on characters to carry the story forward.

If you’re one of the readers who bought the book expecting Stephen King, then put the book down and didn’t finish it, I really advise you to go back and put the time in to at least read a little while longer. You’ll be rewarded for the time and effort.

Although the book could be considered beach material, I think you’ll find the beach will seem a little more desolate and a little more chilly while you’re turning pages. And if you make the mistake of staying up late to finish this novel, you might use find yourself reading while pulling the covers up to your chin and sleeping with the light on well after you’re done.

I’m looking forward to Joe Hill’s next book. As it is now, I’m going back and picking up some of his short story collections. This is definitely a young new writer to watch.

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About Mel Odom

  • Nicole Saraiva

    Unlike a great part of the readers for Heart Shaped Box, I actually bought this book with no idea of the author and his relation to Stephen King.
    While in the bookshop, I spotted this book at random, and it seemed to call to me.
    Reading the blurb, I gathered that it was a horror that greatly appealed to me.
    The musical influences, the supernatural, the tortured past, the suicide, this all painted an amazingly intriguing picture, and I knew I couldn’t leave the store without that book.
    Myself, I originate from Texas and currently live in New York City. As a teen I grew up with the Gothic “sub culture” and have continued with the lifestyle, and I’ve done some pretty shitty things with myself…as a result I felt I could identify totally with Georgia/Marybeth, and also, to maybe a lesser extent, Jude.
    I see the eerie parallels with my own life ; the guilt of betrayal, the emotional damage, the ghosts of the past.
    Heart Shaped Box showed me these things, in a context I could understand and accept.
    This isn’t really a book review so much as a deep heart felt thank you to Joe Hill.
    This book opened me up to being able accept new ideas about life, and that being emotionally dead to avoid people wasn’t saving me.
    It helped me achieve the confidence to confront my own ghosts and break through the fog that was clouding my mind…and now at the end of the day I’m smiling again, and eagerly looking forward to tomorrow.

  • Ginger Haycox

    I feel the same way. I was about to do a review on this book after reading it, but I’ve changed my mind because I think the book needs no help in finding readers on it’s own. I am not a Stephen King fan – not totally anyway. I read some of his books because I like the way he tells a story. With exception to some good vs evil classics like The Stand, I wasn’t really hooked on any of his tales tho’.

    So if I say Joe Hill hasn’t fallen far from the tree with an exception, I mean that only in the best sense. He has the story-telling abilities plus a good story to tell. At least so far.

    I did find that the Heart-Shaped Box meandered off at times, but not in a critically bad way. I was fascinated with his girls and happy at where some of that led. Nicole, this to you; I’m sure glad the book served such a positive purpose for you too, because we have eternity to obsess over death – life is ever so short and we need to obsess over it too, while we still have the chance. The rewards can be beautiful even if the road getting to that beauty is ugly. Trust me – I speak from experience.

  • Elaine Newvine

    Loved this book! I was hooked from the first chapter. This was not a waste of my reading time, and would find myself reading a chapter or two while making dinner. It was hard to put down.The story and character’s personalities were intense. Can’t wait to read more of Joe’s books.

  • anthony r nash

    A simple book for those who like simple ,uncomplicated stories.If this was a movie ,it would play for the Chuck Norris demograpic. This apple has indeed fallen far from the tree.

    • E. Ellet

      The Apple needs writing lessons or something. And Mel probably needs glasses.

  • E. Ellet

    A really lousy story that would have never been published if the kid’s daddy wasn’t Stephen King.