Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (audio)

heart-shaped boxWell, NOS4A2 is a hard act to follow. Although of course, Joe Hill wrote that one second; I’m out of order.

Heart-Shaped Box is about an aging rock star. Judas Coyne is mid-fifties when we meet him; he’s a little melancholy, a little rough around the edges, a little broody over his ex-wife and two dead bandmates. His collection of the obscurely macabre makes him an easy mark for an online auction offering a ghost for sale; but when he buys the dead man’s suit – which is supposed to come with the dead man’s spirit – he gets more than he paid for. The ghost turns out to be no stranger to Jude, but the step-father of an ex-girlfriend he called Florida. She was just one in a string of much younger women who he calls by the states they hail from; his current live-in is Georgia, and it turns out that by buying the ghost, Jude has gotten her into a pickle, as well.

Judas (real name Justin) and Georgia (real name Marybeth) will battle the dead man together, and in so doing, they’ll have to confront some metaphorical ghosts as well: her youthful traumas, his lifelong ones, and his dying father he hasn’t seen in 30 years. Jude’s two dogs, big beautiful German shepherds named Angus and Bon, play a role as well. They travel from a New York farm to the southern homes of Florida, Georgia – and Jude himself, who has been trying to outrun Louisiana all his life. It’s no coincidence, I think, that all his state-named conquests come from south of the Mason-Dixon line.

There are many strengths in this book, and I can’t help but think of them in terms of Hill’s outstanding second novel and the work of his larger-than-life father (ahem), for better or worse. Like King, Hill excels at creating believable worlds: Jude’s heavy metal rock stardom, the goth chicks he dates, and the world of the dead. As in NOS4A2, the creepiness of the supernatural, the other, is both deliciously excruciating, and entirely real – fully wrought, finely detailed, rooted in our true greatest fears, and with a sense of style. I really liked his characters, too: complex and ambiguous but ultimately people we want to root for.

I did have a few concerns here and there. I worried that Hill might struggle to keep up the tension. When I’d already had my heart raised by several repeated near-deaths and checked to see that I was about 1/3 of the way through, I wondered. But it turned out I should never have doubted! Because not long after that came the moment – I was walking home from the train and stopped in my tracks in an “oh shit” moment where he racheted things up and oh, good, we’re back in the world of the man who wrote NOS4A2. And in hindsight I like the time we spent prior to that moment, too; it was all necessary to build up the background that paid off in the end, so my bad, Mr. Hill. Hats off.

Later I had a few moments of doubt when Georgia and Florida began to be conflated… I wondered if it wasn’t a little misogynistic to have these two young women (who each have a lot of personality and personal history to build them out) begin to merge into one. It was a plot point, and not an accident born of Hill’s inherent prejudice, which helps some. I’m a little ambivalent on that point.

But really, that’s searching for criticisms. This supernatural, psychological thriller rattled my bones and kept me rapt; and I loved the cultural references (there’s Stephen King again) and strong sense of place(s), which is another of my favorite things in novels. I’ve left the plot purposefully pretty blank here because I want you to enjoy it for yourself: if you love being frightened by a truly well-put-together feat of storytelling with great characters, you’ll love Heart-Shaped Box. Um, you should be okay with blood, too.

Rating: 8 swings of the razor blade.

4 Responses

  1. […] figure in the Dark Tower series. And one kid is described as wearing a Judas Coyne t-shirt (see Heart-Shaped Box). I get a kick out of these self-referential […]

  2. do you know the Nirvana song “Heart Shaped Box” by Cobain? surely not a coincidence? Google returns roughly equal references to the song & the book.

    • But of course! In Utero was one of the first two albums I owned on cd. I don’t see any connection aside from their titles, but Hill must have known the Nirvana song, too; his novel followed the song by about four years.

  3. […] is a horror novel by Joe Hill, son of the horror novel empire of the world, and author of Heart-Shaped Box and NOS4A2. So I had high hopes, and indeed was moving along smoothly enough, feeling engaged and […]

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