Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Heart-Shaped Box: A Review

I'll be the first to admit that I'm typically not a big fan of the horror genre. This may be the result of having read The Shining as a twelve-year-old...I think the damn thing both scared and scarred me. Which is why it's ironic that Stephen King's son (who writes under the name Joe Hill) is the one who made horror enjoyable for me again. Not long after starting this blog I reviewed Hill's second novel, Horns. Given that (and since his newest novel, NOS4A2, will be out in May), I think it's time to take a look at his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, as well.

Long before anyone knew he was the son of horror legend Stephen King, Joe Hill's outstanding debut novel Heart-Shaped Box made it clear that a major new voice had arrived on the literary scene. And not just the horror scene. As the San Francisco Chronicle said in their review, it is a "story likely to be enjoyed by horror enthusiasts and mainstream readers alike."

The premise is simple: an aging heavy metal icon named Judas Coyne has a macabre collection, including a peasant's skull, a witch's confession written 300 years earlier, and a snuff film. When he sees an online auction offering the ghost of a woman's stepfather, he doesn't hesitate to add it to his collection. She sends him the dead man's favorite suit in a black heart-shaped box, and that's when his troubles begin. Because he didn't just buy an empty suit, or even some anonymous ghost; this is much more personal.

What ensues is, for Jude, a road trip where he switches back and forth from hunter to hunted so fast it's sometimes hard to keep up with who's chasing who. The tension builds, gives you just enough time to take a short breath, then builds some more. And Hill understands very well what Hitchcock meant when he said there is no terror in the "bang," only in the anticipation of it.

Like his father, Joe Hill is firmly planted in the horror genre. But Hill diverges from most horror writers in that he creates truly literary novels at the same time. His plotting is tight, and his characters, both hero and villain, are fully formed. In fact, what makes them so real is that none are completely hero or completely villain, just like in life. You find yourself caring about the characters because they are not cardboard cutouts of people; they're us, even with ghosts hot on their heels (in Heart-Shaped Box) or horns growing out of their heads (in Horns).

Make no mistake: Heart-Shaped Box will scare the hell out of you. But in the process of being scared you'll also see a remarkable transformation in Jude that I certainly never saw coming at the start of the book. Too often in novels today we see no development in the characters, regardless of genre. That is not the case here. It is an amazing debut novel, and as Horns has shown, it was no one-hit wonder.

So pick up a copy of Heart-Shaped Box and settle in for a great read. Just be sure to lock the doors first. And you'll probably want to leave all the lights on too.

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