I have been meaning to read Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill for some time and have finally gotten round to it; on the basis of this book I will be reading his other novels. Heart-Shaped Box is a horror novel, but not a conventional horror novel. There are many other elements of genre fiction brought into the book – thriller, crime and to an extent romance. Heart-Shaped Box is also Hill’s first novel.
Heart-Shaped Box is the third ‘horror’ novel that I have read in a row recently, I wouldn’t normally read three consecutive novels from the same genre; however, I felt it was a good time to read it. I did think that I might be a bit ‘horror-ed’ out, especially as one of the other two was the excellent Domain by James Herbert. Despite this overload, I enjoyed it immensely. Heart-Shaped Box was fresh and engaging with the reader, fast-paced and unafraid to keep pushing its plot. The set-up of the story was quite simple, in the best possible way, and a different idea to any I had read before. Elements of the book do fall into standardised plot set-ups in order to drive the story forwards, but the central conceit was new.
The book opens with the main character, an aging heavy metal singer and occult enthusiast, buying a ghost on the internet. Jude (short for Judas Coyne) is actually buying a suit that is supposed to have a spirit attached to it; the suit arrives in a heart-shaped box. Not long after this, the story skews slightly and we learn what Jude’s connection is to the ghost and the novel progresses from there.
I think that Heart-Shaped Box is a very good novel, clearly aimed at an audience like me that enjoys a good supernatural thriller. I was a little concerned about a third of the way through because so much had happened, I didn’t know where the book was going and I couldn’t see how the story had enough scope to continue at the same pace. I thought the story was going to run itself out. However, Joe Hill deals with the story very well, twisting its way to a good conclusion, not letting up throughout. Some of the books imagery was excellent, I particularly like the descriptions of the ghost and one entrance as the old man climbs out of a Mary-Poppins-Carpet-Bag-esque heart-shaped box lying on the floor. The book is sometimes violent and gory but never grotesque or exploitative. The violence isn’t written for shock value, the book requires it to push the story forwards and give the reader a sense of real jeopardy. Having never read anything by Joe Hill before, and given his family background (he is Stephen King’s son after all) I felt I couldn’t predict what was going to happen the story’s main characters.
Even though Hill is King’s son, and this is essentially a horror novel, I think the comparison stops there. Heart-Shaped Box is different to any King book I have ever read, Hill has his own style and voice which is very effective. I really felt whilst reading that it had an original feel about the book. It was very compelling with some great characters that the reader could genuinely care about and root for. This book was definitely a cut above a lot of the horror novels I have read over the years, not relying on gore and shock tactics to keep the reader interested, but having some of these elements interwoven into a character led story. The twists within the book were good and unexpected, never ridiculous. Heart-Shaped Box was fun, bombastic and not for the faint of heart.