Review: HEART-SHAPED BOX by Joe Hill

In case you want to just know what I thought of the book, here’s my arbitrary yet relevant to the novel rating system:

21 out of 22 Judas Coyne singles

And here’s some ways to buy it, because with that kind of rating, how can you not want to?

IndieBound (for paper versions)

Amazon (for you Kindle havers, or if you don’t care about supporting indie bookstores.)

Barnes & Noble (some of you have Nooks. I don’t pretend to know why.)

First of all, a story. I didn’t think much of the title when I first saw it, because it brought to mind one of those literary “I went walking in Memphis” style stories where the protagonist spends a lot of time working on his inner-self and grows as a person but not a whole fucking lot happens. I also recognized that I was literally judging a book by its title. So I tracked the book down at a Barnes & Noble and read the synopsis on the back, which I will paraphrase. The book is about an aging rock star named Judas Coyne who collects macabre things and bangs younger women, and when he gets the chance to buy a ghost off the Internet does it (because, fuck yeah, who wouldn’t buy a ghost off the Internet. No one I hang out with.). But the ghost isn’t Casper and things go to shit.

I immediately wanted to buy the book for my mother-in-law, who loves Rob Zombie and Alice Cooper and is the single most frustrating human being on the entire planet to buy presents for. I casually mentioned it to her, feeling out whether or not she’d heard of it and she responded with “Oh, I love Joe Hill. I have all of his books.”

God. Damn. It. So much for Christmas being easy.

Anyway, her opinion carries a lot of weight with me, and combined with Mr. Hill’s Twitter feed I decided to give his books a go. I’m glad that I did.

Most importantly, the book is creepy. It has a psychological grossness to it, without being gratuitous. It’s not splatterpunk by any means, but it also doesn’t shy away from hurting the characters in it. And when it does hurt them, it’s deep. Mr. Hill ratchets the tension continuously throughout the story, pausing just enough to let us learn more about characters so we can care about them. The novel is expertly carried by the main character, who I wish was a real rock star I could look at and say that his stuff hasn’t been any good since he went solo except for that one thing he did with Trent Reznor.

But it is more than just a story about a sinister apparition menacing a rock god. The book examines how a disgruntled soul can continue to affect the living, whether it is from a poltergeist trying to murder you or if it’s from the ways you’ve treated those around you. How our pasts  leave reflections on our presents; reflections that can blind us to what is going on around us and, pardon the cliché, haunt us until we can’t help ourselves to a better life. And the heart-shaped box of the title comes into play in various interesting ways, tying the various parts of the story together. In retrospect, the title could not have been anything else.

While the point of view character is Coyne exclusively, I would like to argue that the narrative still managed to take both the damsel in distress and the girl in the fridge tropes and subvert them. The female characters in this book are rich and have agency of their own, and are far from the nitwits running up the stairs to avoid a serial killer, or victims who exist only as a carrot for the male protagonist. All of the characters, actually, manage a roundness that is impressive.

I prefer, for this book, to use “antagonist” and “protagonist” because these characters don’t really live up to the “heroes and villains” paradigm. The protagonists are not saints: they are occasionally selfish and rude, although they are conflicted about it. And while the antagonists are unabashedly evil, there is a certain moral logic to their actions that makes them even creepier. I like that the characters all seem more complex by the end, and that I could still cheer for the protagonists and fear the antagonists.

All in all, I highly recommend this book. I knocked 5% off a perfect score (and you thought my ranking was completely arbitrary…go on, do the math, I’ll wait.). There are some strangely worded sentences throughout that pulled me out of the story, though this could just be my head. It’s the guy’s first novel, and while it’s really, really good, it isn’t perfect. But, it’s damn entertaining, and well worth your time, even if horror isn’t a genre you usually find yourself digging into. Now go click on those links and give the guy some of your money, though I personally wouldn’t blame you if your ran to your library and checked it out, because libraries need love too.


About wombatdeamor
I am a writer who has yet to be published. I am using this blog to shame myself into writing more regularly, in the hopes that I will be able to improve the "About Yourself" box to something less awkward. I also like to cook and use profanity.

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