Written by Joe Hill, 2007
The only reason Heart-Shaped Box caught my eye was because I know Joe Hill is Stephen King’s eldest son. This is exactly why Joesph Hillstrom King writes under a pseudonym, but this is inevitably a burden he’ll just have to deal with. I can think of far worse weights to shoulder.
I mention the secret behind the name not as a point of comparison for the two author’s ability, but because, objectively, that’s the main attraction anyone is going to have to the material. Stephen King’s shadow blots out entire sections of book stores; pure curiosity is the natural reaction to finding out his son is also a horror writer; curiosity as to whether or not that shadow casting passes through chromosomes is the next logical question.
It does. Hill won’t be blotting out shelves yet, but he has it him.
Heart-Shaped Box is about an aging rocker, Judas Coyne, who buys a ghost off the internet. Hold the sarcasm phone, though, because that superficially silly plot point makes sense for both character as well as plot in this hardcore tale that pumps PCP into the veins of even the most aggressive ghost stories.
Coyne, an Alice Cooper, Spinal Tap type, is a purveyor of the bizarre, so when he crosses an offer to purchase the supposedly haunted suit of a dead man the unavoidable action is to buy it outright. A week or so later, the suit arrives in a heart-shaped box and with it the creepy. Things start simple enough. Georgia, the 20-something goth living with Jude, gets her finger punctured on a pin inside the suit. Everyone in the house has bad dreams. Etcetera, etcetera.
Worry not, though, for soon enough Jude learns the truth of the suit. It belonged to the hypnotist step-father of a girl, Florida, whose unrequited love for Jude presumably led to her suicide and was sold to the rocker by her vengeful older sister. Following this early revelation, the force of the haunting gets turned to 11.
If anything, the sheer persistence of Craddock’s ethereal lust for Jude’s death is too strong. The rocker and his goth squeeze are constantly on the run, constantly on the verge of being hypnotized by a ghost into killing themselves. Few breaks are given early on, and the pacing is as restless for the reader as it is for Hill’s characters. One would posit that this intensity would be refreshing for the genre, but, inversely, it often borders on literary exhaustion.
Pacing issues aside, the story works. Though all the variables are different, the concept is reminiscent of Stephen King’s Thinner. I’ve always held a distinct admiration for that work, a lean tale of revenge bestowed upon a man whose only sin was, unfortunately, getting a blowjob. Roughly, the same thing boils down to Judas, initially, in Heart-Shaped Box, only Hill fattens up the lean portions into a morbid and, oddly, believable back story that result in a chain of events that gives the big picture an even brighter spotlight, illuminating the real horrors of the story.
No complaint can be filed with Hill’s writing style, only with a few narrative choices. The first being the aforementioned pacing, the second being a few flights of fantasy that appear nothing-but-convenient in a story that is otherwise bound to a strict sense of realism. It is tricky to introduce original ideas into a medium so plagued with common ground rules, so the blame isn’t as glaring, but even still the revelation that dogs have a soulful, protective spirit inside them at just the right time is a slippery one to hold high.
The problem isn’t that this particular invention is an uncommon bit of knowledge about the afterlife, but it is regrettable Hill does little to introduce it before it happens. I can, however, give Hill a break since he introduces far more scares out of left field than he does safety nets.
Heart-Shaped Box is, taken as an early novel for Hill, a tremendous showing of potential. It’s a wild story, lending perfectly to a wild film, which is as inevitable as the mentioning of the Hill-King relationship. It goes by quick at 384 pages, so give it a shot before your next trip. Even on a crowded airplane, Hill will provide plenty of material for the hairs on the back of your neck to think about.