Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

I didn’t know who Joe Hill was when I bought Heart-Shaped Box. I read a review, thought it sounded interesting and bought it.  The book sat on my to-read shelf for several months (yes, my to-read shelf is ridiculous!) until I had a conversation one day in the bookstore.

Customer: I’m looking for 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill. You probably don’t even have him.

Me: He wrote Heart-Shaped Box.

Customer: (looking surprised) Yeah. Have you read it?

Me: (sheepishly) No. But I’m going to.

Customer: He’s Stephen King’s son.

Me: (my turn to be surprised) Really? Wow.

Customer: I *loved* Heart-Shaped Box. It’s fantastic.

And now,  just this morning,  after my kids left for school and my husband left for work and before I had breakfast or started any of the things I have to do before I go to work…I finished the book. Ironically, the last time I carted a ‘horror’ novel around with me it was King’s book It. That was a long time ago. I loved that book.

I loved Heart-Shaped Box, too. As a matter of fact, before I was even half-way through the book, I hand-sold a copy to a woman who was purusing the Horror section. (I work at Indigo.)

Me: Do you like scary stories?

Customer: (looks sheepish) Yes.

Me: Have you heard of Joe Hill?

Her: No.

Me: I am currently reading Heart-Shaped Box. It’s great. (hand her a copy). He’s Stephen King’s son.

Her: (looking at picture) Only better looking. (laughs and puts book in shopping bag)

I hope Mr. Hill doesn’t think it’s a disservice to draw a comparison between him and his famous Dad. I grew up reading Stephen King. I don’t like everything he’s ever written. For example, even after several attempts I cannot get into The Stand and I know people who love that book. But the thing about King is that he writes books peopled with characters whose fate you actually care about. If you didn’t give a toss about them- the horrible things that happen to them wouldn’t matter. They’d have it coming.

Judas Coyne, the middle-aged, former rock star, slightly misogynistic anti-hero of Heart-Shaped Box, might have had it coming except for this:

“Not my hand! No, Dad, not my hand!”

Any ambivalence I felt about Jude’s fate ended right then and there. Suddenly, he was a character- fully drawn, with an aching past and a boulder the size of Mount Rushmore lodged in his heart. Hill doesn’t go over-the-top with details of Jude’s horrific childhood; I didn’t need to hear anymore anyway. Your imagination always fills in the blanks.

Besides, Heart-Shaped Box operates on a more immediate level. The book has barely begun before Jude buys a dead man’s suit and the ghost that accompanies it. Then all hell breaks loose and Jude and his goth-girlfriend-of-the-moment are running for their lives. And, thanks to Hill, they are lives we actually care about.

Of course there are some horror conventions in this book: radios that intone doom, television news reports that announce horrible endings, creepy people with scribbled out eyes.  There are no cliches here, though.

And I wonder if Jude’s flight- away from the ghost that he’s bought and towards the ghost that has haunted him for the past 34 years was intentional on Hill’s part. It must have been, I know. It adds an extra layer of depth to the book’s denouement, though, that’s for sure

Mr. King must be tremendously proud.

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