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Book Review: Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill

An aging rock star versus a vengeful ghost.

Heart-Shaped Box

William Morrow, 2007, 376 pages

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 widely known. But nothing he possesses is as unlikely or as dreadful as his latest discovery, a thing so terrible-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. 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 hand.

This was Joe Hill's debut novel, published before everyone knew he was Stephen King's son.

It's very apparent that Joe Hill is heavily influenced by his old man. As a Stephen King fan since way back, I'm not averse to Stephen King-lite if it's anywhere near as good, and Joe does seem to have inherited his dad's writing chops. He apparently skipped his dad's "deranged coke-fiend" phase, which means his writing is mellower and less tortured. In Heart-Shaped Box, he writes about an aging rock star (this appears to be a mandatory phrase in every summary and review of this book) named Judas Coyne, who is a tortured man, but you can kind of tell the difference between Hill's writing and King's. If King wrote this novel, you'd feel Judas Coyne's torment, and his shitty childhood would bleed out onto the page and the chapters of sex and violence that Hill approaches with an almost literary detachment would be raw and disturbing.

It's not really fair to compare a writer with his father, of course, except that Hill writes so very much like his father, including writing the same sort of books.

The "heart-shaped box" is a box containing a dead man's suit, which Judas Coyne bought off the Internet — because he is a morbid, aging rock star, he makes a hobby of collecting gruesome things like murder weapons and snuff films. So the dead man's suit seems like just another macabre memento. Except it turns out it wasn't sent to him by chance. The suit is haunted by its former owner, who can do a lot more than rattle chains. He's a nasty old man with his own story that emerges along with Judas's.

Judas and his current (much younger) girlfriend flee with their dogs on an interstate odyssey, with a murderous ghost harassing them psychically and physically all the way.

This was a good story, and a bit of lighter reading for Stephen King fans. I can't say by itself it would make me a Joe Hill fan — it certain stands on its own, but it doesn't grab you by the balls the way some of King's early works do. But Hill isn't just getting published because of his dad, he's got the storytelling gift, and I've already ready at least one of his later works, so I know he has some stretching to do.

Also by Joe Hill: My review of NOS4A2.

My complete list of book reviews.

Posts from This Journal by “joe hill” Tag

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