Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (2007) : A Rock ‘n’ Roll Ghost Story

Ghost stories tend to be hit or miss with me. A lot of times I don’t get into them, but if one manages to get its hooks in me, I’ll usually love it. Joe Hill managed to do the impossible and create one that’s smack dab in the middle of the road.

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Judas Coyne—not his real name—is a semi-retired, world famous rock star, along the lines of Ozzy, with a taste for the macabre. He has a vast collection of items related to the occult, voodoo, and witchcraft, so when Jude, as he’s mostly called, is alerted to an online auction claiming to sell a haunted suit, he buys in instantly, no questions asked. When the suit arrives (in a heart-shaped box, as suits do), it doesn’t take long before Jude starts seeing the ghost of a creepy old man dressed in the suit and swinging a pendulum-shaped razor blade hanging on a chain. From there so begins the journey to find who the old man is, why he’s haunting Jude, and, as things escalate, how to stop him.

The book starts like gangbusters. Sometimes ghost stories—and haunted house stories, for that matter—go for the slow burn, building anticipation until there’s a grand reveal. With HSB, Joe Hill gives us the ghost in the first few pages and we’re off to the races, which I really appreciate. I like books that just kick right off without any mucking around.

The ghost is/was a hypnotist, and has a strong power of suggestion, putting thoughts in people heads in an attempt to influence their actions. There’s some excellent creepy imagery tied to this, in the first half especially, including a scene involving Jude’s girlfriend watching a snuff film with a gun in her mouth that made my skin crawl. Once we hit the midway point, however, the book falters a little.

Jude and his girlfriend, Georgia/Marybeth, head out on a road trip (with his two dogs, who play an important role) from Jude’s home in upstate New York down to Georgia, Florida, and ultimately Louisiana, in an attempt to stop the ghost. There are some pretty decent moments throughout the second half, but nothing that matches the scare and creep factors in the first half.

It was interesting to read a book with fairly contemporary rock ‘n’ roll references—Rancid, Anthrax, and Trent Reznor are all mentioned in the book, among others—but it seemed to me he was trying to hard to work the whole ‘heart-shaped box’ in there. It felt almost like he’d thought of a good title, one that referenced a popular song (by Nirvana, if anyone didn’t know) and fit the rock aspect of the book, then tried to force it into the story whether it worked or not.

Part of me is glad I read this after reading Hill’s superior last novel, NOS4A2. If I’d read HSB when it first came out, knowing—despite the name change—that it was the debut novel from Stephen King’s son, I’m sure I would’ve been a lot harder on it. But reading it now, knowing what the author is capable of, it’s easier to accept HSB for what it is: a really good—but not great—way to spend a few hours creeping yourself out.

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