Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

19 December, 2010

Wow, I didn’t expect this book to be scary. Silly me, considering Joe Hill is horror-meister Stephen King’s son. I’d been curious of Heart-Shaped Box since its publication in 2007 and especially given Hill’s lineage. I’ve probably only read a handful of Stephen King’s novels and watched some of the films based on his books (I’m probably the last person on earth who hasn’t seen Kubrik’s The Shining.) But what I’ve read I’ve liked. It’s just that I don’t read much horror.

In Heart-Shaped Box, Hill introduces us to Judas Cowyn, the sole surviving member of his rock group. He’s rich, he’s worshiped by a legion of fans and he’s got an endless supply of young girlfriends. He’s also been running away from his unhappy childhood for the past forty years. One day he buys a ghost on the internet to add to his collection of grisly and spooky objects. What arrives is a dead man’s suit, together with his ghost, in a heart-shaped box. A malevolent and revenge-driven ghost that will haunt and terrify Jude and everyone around him.

Such a simple story yet Hill turns it into a relentless, fast-paced and frightening thriller, all the while managing to create fully-formed characters.

I’m normally not tickled by having a grizzled rocker with an extremely young ex-stripper as a girlfriend for the protagonist. All this macho bullshit normally turns me off and I tend to steer clear of them. But Hill does the unthinkable and actually created a protagonist who I liked. A lot. He may be grizzled and trying to reclaim his youth by rotating ever younger girlfriends, but there is something touching and real about him. Jude knows who he is and he’s tired of pretending to be someone else. The character of his girlfriend Georgia also grew on me as I read. What I thought was just a damaged, ex-stripper, turned out to be a strong, resilient and lovely woman. And you really start to care about what will happen to them. That’s a sign of a good writer.

And in Craddock, Hill has created a truly frightening spirit. One that is evil through and through with no redeeming features even after death. I guarantee he will scare the living bejesus out of you. I kept reading this at night before going to sleep and could only read about 10 pages at a time because, well, it was dark and I was going to switch off the light and sleep. Not a good time to read this book unless you want to be scared.

For a first novel, Heart-Shaped Box has a very clear and assured voice. It surprised me, somewhat. It’s as though Hill didn’t need to be cocky or try too hard, because he really does have talent.

I’m looking forward to reading his next novel, Horns. I’ll just have to check first whether it’s scary;P