Book Review - Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
A unique and twisted take on the standard ghost story.
One of the best things about going into a book completely plot blind is having absolutely zero preconceived notions to satisfy (or set aside). Outside of knowing that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son, and knowing that he goes by Hill so his writing can stand on its own (so this is the only comparison to King that will appear in this review), I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into when I started Heart-Shaped Box. I hadn’t read the synopsis. I hadn’t even glanced at other reviews. And, honestly, that plot ignorance was such a wonderful thing. This book is an absolute joy to read, with strong writing, great plotting & a truly memorable otherworldly antagonist, and I was glad that everything that unfolded throughout the narrative was fresh, unexpected, and uncolored by expectation.
Horror has always been one of my favorite genres, even as I got older and the tales ceased to be scary or hair-raising. And while it seems that modern horror has suffered through a spat of gonzo titles, where the focus is more on shock than on storytelling, it’s books like Heart-Shaped Box that prove that horror is still a viable and vital genre. And while my younger self would have absolutely enjoyed this one, this is really a book that you can only truly appreciate once you are older and have been seasoned (or distressed, as Judas Coyne would put it) by life’s ups and downs.
Thinking on it now, it was as if she were rehearsing for her first day as a corpse, for the evening she would spend cooling and wrinkling in a tub full of cold water and blood.
As with all my reviews, I will attempt to avoid spoilers. While there’s nothing wrong with a spoilerific review (if that’s what someone is looking for), I think it’s a shame to rob future readers of the joys of discovery even with small details. So, if it’s not mentioned in the book’s synopsis on Goodreads (which I just now read), then I will do my level best to avoid mentioning it here.
One of the coolest thing about Heart-Shaped Box is that the synopsis is exactly what this book is about, while also being nowhere close to what this book is about. I think the best stories are those that are more than just the initially introduced plot, but are instead actually several stories being told at once, layered within each other and enhancing each other. And that’s exactly what Joe Hill has done here. Yes, this is a story about an aging rock star beset by a vengeful mail-order ghost, but it’s also SOOOOO much more than that. This is also a story of regret, a story of the highs (and lows) of making music, a story of tough & rocky love, a story of the joy and companionship that pets bring to our lives, and a story of redemption.
As a whole, I feel that redemption stories are incredibly difficult to pull off well. Go too far, and the character’s redemption feels trite and unearned. Don’t go far enough, and all you have is an unlikeable cad who has learned nothing and made nothing better (and wasted your time in the process). I’m a pay-it-forward kind of guy, so when characters really do learn something and start seeing the value of a selfless act, it resonates with me.
But don’t let that fool you into thinking that our POV character, Judas Coyne, goes all Hallmark Channel by the end of the book and becomes a living saint. One of the joys of his character is that, even at his best, he’s still a bit of a bastard. As a celebrity rock star with a macabre slant, he’s no angel. Take all of the hard rocker stereotypes from the 70’s through the 90’s, and that’s basically Jude in a nutshell. About the only thing he hasn’t poisoned himself with over the years is cigarettes. Everything else was fair game. So, at the beginning of the book, our “protagonist” is a self-centered, womanizing dickhead who is still living large off of the fame that his rock & roll career gave him. He’s not especially nice to his live-in girlfriend, he’s not especially nice to his star-struck assistant, and he’s not especially nice to himself. He is, however, especially caring of his two Shepherds, Angus and Bon. And honestly, anyone who names their dogs after members of AC/DC is alright in my book. But though he starts out as abrasive and unlikeable, he does transform a bit as the story progresses, as the weight of all of his decisions (past AND present) starts to become a crushing burden.
One of mankind’s greatest gifts, in my opinion, is our capacity for self-reflection. Nobody is perfect, and nobody has no regrets, but it’s because of regret, and of hard lessons learned, that we can actually effect great change within ourselves. If we so choose, of course. And with Jude, had the vengeful spirit not come into his life, it’s very likely that he would have continued to be the same self-centered cad up until he was lying upon his deathbed. But through the life-or-death struggle that ensues, Jude is truly able to look past his own island of self-importance and see the things that really matter. His past comes bubbling up in ways that actually forces him to face it, and seeing it so up close and visceral is something that definitely hits him hard. This doesn’t suddenly make him Steve Carrell in the 40 Year-Old Virgin, as he’s still undeniably Jude…just a different Jude. A better Jude.
The profane didn't trouble him; it had made him a good living for thirty years.
Though this is a single, third-person POV tale (we are in Jude’s headspace for the whole narrative), there are a couple of supporting characters who help round out the tale. Our main secondary character is Jude’s live-in girlfriend, Georgia. Though that’s not her real name, that’s how Jude refers to her for most of book. Young and goth, Georgia starts out as a tough sell; she’s much younger than Jude, prone to self-loathing, and accepts his casual emotional abuse with an ease that belies her young age. She’s very nearly a caricature of the “troubled young girl desperate for validation” character. But while she may start out that way, throughout the story she also grows and learns, shedding the skin of who she was when she met Jude. And though I wasn’t sold on her initially, by the end of the book I was firmly in her corner.
"You're a sympathetic son of a bitch, you know that?" "You want sympathy, go fuck James Taylor."
Our other main supporting character is the spirit himself. The problem is, it’s REALLY hard to talk about him without bringing up spoilers. Suffice it to say that he is a wholly unique creation, and is one of the more effective villains I’ve read in a while (dead or not). It’s a rare book indeed that can invent a villain who is just as detailed and enjoyable a character as the protagonists. And by enjoyable I mean effective. I absolutely loathed the spirit, but his motivations (while sick & twisted) made sense for the character. He wasn’t evil just for the sake of being evil. Villains so rarely live up to their potential, so it’s especially satisfying to read about one who does. And the fact that he’s just one super creepy bastard really helps set the tone of the novel. He is malice, menace, and malevolence all wrapped up in an otherworldly and inescapable package.
Other side characters come and go, and while they may not have much page time, they are generally unique and enjoyable. From a diner patron with a voice-box to one tough-as-nails young girl with an oversized revolver, each side character goes a little beyond the traditional cookie-cutter formula.
It should come as no surprise, given the topic, that this book is rather dark. There is always an oppressive weight during the narrative, which fits the story being told. And the ironic thing is that the oppressive weight comes from the cognizant decisions of our characters. Every decision we make, good or bad, has a cost. And when you’ve made a lot of bad decisions, the cost may be higher (and darker) than expected. Joe Hill doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the things that our characters endure during the story (or endured in the past). But such is the cost of a life lived on the edge, with very little care for those who were along for the ride or helped make the ride happen. Such is the price of vanity, of self-importance, and of building an emotional wall and lacing it with defenses of biting sarcasm and emotional distance. Such is the price of running from the ugly parts of your past instead of facing them head on. Sure, there are books where characters skate by on paying these costs in full. Hell, there are books where the characters find ways to cheat and not pay the costs at all. Heart-Shaped Box is not one of those books. And it's all the better because of it.
And while I didn’t find it scary in any way, that’s not to say that the horror aspects of the book are lacking (believe me, they aren’t!). I just think there’s something wrong with me, for as much as I love reading horror stories, they no longer give me a twinge of dread or even the slightest sense of unease. But for those readers who DO get a charge out of the scary stories, I think Heart-Shaped Box will be immensely satisfying. Though there is definitely body horror, it’s the psychological scares that stand out here. Honestly, I think there is something for everyone here. A creeping unstoppable force? Check. A villain who can get into our character’s heads, resulting in serious mindfucks? Check. Grievous bodily harm? Check.
That’s not to say that the book is nothing but a depressing slog through a bloody and emotionally stunted wasteland. It’s not. There are bright points littered throughout, and an ending I wasn’t necessarily expecting (but that I’m glad I got). There are moments of levity as well, generally when Jude and Georgia are sniping at each other, or at someone else. But there are also some really subtle, and quite amusing, little observations sprinkled along at random intervals.
If hell was anything, it was talk radio - and family.
Also, the love story is completely non-traditional, but Joe Hill sells it well. Jude and Georgia are very nearly toxic for each other, with no idea what a healthy relationship looks like. They both have ugly pasts, which bleed over into who they are at the start of the book, and their quasi-abusive relationship is hard to read about. But through the trials and tribulations that they both face, and as the damaged and blackened layers get peeled away, they start to see each other in a different light. It’s not quick, it’s not always kind, but it does feel realistic.
I’m really trying hard to think about what I didn’t like about the book. And I’m really coming up short here. It was well written, engaging, and expertly plotted. It started out with characters I did not like, and had me rooting for them by the end. It has an awesome villain and a totally unique premise. And it has two awesome dogs, and great references to some awesome music. There's really nothing to nitpick.
By now Angus and Bon were both trailing him, and he whispered at them to stay. They sank to their bellies outside the door, staring forlornly in at him, accusing him with their eyes of failing to love them enough.
All in all, Heart-Shaped Box was one great read from start to finish, and undoubtedly one of my favorite horror books of all time! If you haven't yet read it, I strongly urge you to fix that immediately!
5 out of 5 hard-rockin' and middle finger flippin' stars!