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Heart-Shaped Box / Joe Hill

thHeart-ShapedBox.jpgWilliam Morrow / February 2007
Reviewed by: JG Faherty

I have to admit, I felt more than a little trepidation when I started this book, for two main reasons: One, no matter how much I try to read Joe Hill as a unique writer, in my head I’m always comparing him with his father. Will he write the same? Different? Better? Worse? Second, I’m not afraid to say that I wasn't a huge fan of his short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts. Not that it was bad, but I found it very uneven; the two or three really good stories were overshadowed by the several bad ones, and the many mediocre ones. In my humble opinion, it didn't rank with the really good collections I've read - including his father's first, Night Shift (there's that comparison again!).

So I was pleasantly surprised to find that by page 3 of Heart Shaped Box, I was totally hooked. Hill displays a maturity of writing, a grasp of how to use words to maximum effectiveness, and a talent for creating truly creepy, eerie scenes that his father didn't come close to achieving with his own first novel, Carrie.

At its heart, this book is a simple ghost story. A man buys a ‘haunted’ suit, but gets more than he bargained for when the ghost ends up to be a malevolent spirit bent on getting revenge for the suicide of his niece, a groupie dumped unceremoniously by rock star Jude.

A simple ghost story, yes. But in reality, it’s so much more than that; it’s a phenomenal exploration of the hearts and minds of the characters. Hill takes real, raw emotions and lets the reader not only see them, but feel them. When Judas Coyne, the main character, uses sarcasm as a defense mechanism, we understand why - we've all been there before, unwilling to let our true feelings show through, to let down the walls.

As any good ghost story should, Heart Shaped Box deals first and foremost with fear. And here again you believe in the characters - Jude, his goth girlfriend Georgia, and the cast of secondary satellites (perhaps fodder would be a better word, as Hill has no trepidation in letting people die) orbiting around them - because they react the same way you or I would if we found ourselves face-to-face with a vengeful spirit.

They freak out.

We empathize with Jude and Georgia as they experience fear, anger, terror, revulsion, self-loathing, and finally grudging acceptance for the situation they find themselves in. When they embark on their cross-country journey to try and rid themselves of the ghost who wants them dead, their weariness and exhaustion and self-doubt are yours as well. Long hours on the road, shitty hotel rooms, greasy junk food. Is it any wonder they snap at each other? Who among us wouldn't? Better yet, who among us hasn’t?

So yes, Heart Shaped Box is about raw emotions and the human condition. In that respect, it is more literary than the average 'horror' novel. And Hill is an expert at capturing personalities through speech patterns. He's obviously listened to conversations and accents; his southern drawls are instantly recognizable without being over-the-top; they belong to real people, not Deputy Dawg or Foghorn Leghorn. And his use of slang is just right, keeping the book current-sounding without making it so current it will sound dated in five or ten years.

All of this goes a long way to creating a well-written book that's a pleasure to read. But at the same time, Heart Shaped Box is a dark journey that you might not want to take at night.

Hill has managed to do something almost impossible these days, when so much of horror has become commonplace and standard: he's created a new type of monster. Not that ghosts are anything new, but he's done for the ghost genre what Brian Keene did for zombies - bring them into the 21st Century (no pun intended in regards to his other book!). Without giving away any spoilers, let's just say that Hill's description of his ghosts, especially the details of their eyes and the way their bodies change when they move between light and shadow, can only be described as fucking creepy.

And there’s no shortage of action, either, something that's not always the case in a sub-genre where too many stories follow a more sedate, gothic-style pace. The spirit tormenting Jude and Georgia is much more than an apparition or spectral poltergeist. No, the ghost of Craddock McDermott, a dead old man with a real grudge, has all sorts of ways to make his victims' lives miserable, from mind control to possession to physical violence. The action begins almost immediately. Jude 'purchases' the ghost online, and from the moment it arrives, his life is turned upside down, inside out, and round-and-round. Death becomes his closest companion, sparing no one who has the bad luck to know Jude or befriend him.

Before the book is over, Jude has taken more than his fair share of beatings, both physical and mental, but Hill never lets the plot deteriorate into something that provokes disbelief in the reader, or pulls the reader from the story. There is no 'magic cure,' no divine intervention, no out-of-the-blue rescue. Hill creates his world, and keeps true to the rules he's designed for it.

Of course, this isn't to say Heart Shaped Box is a perfect book. It's not. The final couple of denouement-oriented chapters could have been eliminated without taking anything away from the story. And there are a few chunks of dialog scattered through the book that read kind of clunky - with characters speaking in ways that don't match their personalities, such as uneducated groupies using words only a college professor or English major would think to include in conversation. But these are small details; every book has some faults, and Heart Shaped Box has far less than most.

In the end, this is a novel I'd not only recommend to any fan of horror or dark fiction, but to anyone who likes to read, period. Hill writes like a seasoned novelist. I can't help but think of how his father's writing improved during the period between Carrie and 'Salem's Lot; if Hill makes the same kind of leap, he'll be a shoe-in for a best-seller.

Heart Shaped Box is one of the best ghost stories since...well, since Peter Straub's Ghost Story, or maybe even Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. In fact, Heart Shaped Box moves faster than either of them, something that might make it even more appealing to the shorter attention spans of today’s generation.

Read it...you may end up having trouble sleeping afterwards, but it will be worth it.

Purchase Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box

Posted on Tuesday, September 4, 2007 at 11:03AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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