I came late to Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, but as they say, better than never, anyway, because holy shit is it a good book.
I’m not sure why I never picked it up before; I’m familiar enough with Hill’s family that I probably should have based on that alone. You see, Hill’s real name is Joseph Hillstrom King. He is the son of Stephen (yes, that Stephen King) and the brother of Owen, which means that his father’s Needful Things is the reason I’m a writer, and I’ve shaken his brother’s hand and heard him read. On the other hand, that was probably Joe’s intention; he dropped his surname in favor of an abbreviated version of his middle name to distance himself from his family’s legacy. To which I really only say two things: why?, and mission accomplished.
Actually, that’s a bit disingenuous; I sort of get why he might (though I don’t know how I should refer to him? King? Hill? I’m going to go with Just Joe, if only because I don’t think he’d mind. Also: because this is one of those rare novels that makes you want to have a drink with its author, and for that reason alone it is fine). His brother Owen’s novella/collection, We’re All in this Together, was terrific on its own but markedly different from anything his father might have written; Heart-Shaped Box, on the other hand, is not so much, though that doesn’t mean it isn’t as good. In fact, it’s awesome.
Heart-Shaped Box‘s premise is simple; an aging rockstar named Judas Coyne buys a haunted suit off of an eBay-knockoff site, and chill-inducing story ensues. To tell you many details would be to give too much away; suffice to say, what makes H-SB so truly excellent is that it’s not just a ghost story; it’s a story about haunting, and all the different things that can haunt a person, in as many ways as a person can be haunted. Judas is a haunted man, but he’s haunted long before the ghost shows up; by his former career, by his family, by his past, by his former lovers . . .
The novel is partly confronting the ghost (as any good ghost story ought and need be), but also about confronting the past, and confronting yourself, and that’s why it ends up becoming more than the sum of its words. As I said, I get why Just Joe published away from the King legacy; there are marks of King all over this book, from its pop culture references to its repetition of certain phrases to its ghost itself. When the ghost tells Jude it wants to “ride the nightroad,” well, if that doesn’t conjure early-era Stephen King, you must not have read him back then. Nowadays it’s all “smucking” and lame-o Lisey or whathaveyou, but Stephen King used to be able to write the bejesus out of most stories, and Just Joe has certainly inherited that trait.
The book is not perfect, mind you; the ending, I thought, was particularly flawed, but then again, that’s another mark of Stephen, who can tell stories better than anyone else until he gets to the end. But besides that, there are so many subtle touches, so many graceful notes . . . it really does work. And though it wasn’t a book I couldn’t put down, it was a book whose characters I cared about when I did, and that, I think, is even more important. Just Joe’s descriptions of his characters can border on too spare, but that ends up working because I ended up conjuring them in my head; I’m not sure there ever was a full-on, dead-to-rights description of Judas Coyne, but still I feel like I know the guy. Hell, more than that, I feel like I’ve listened to his music, and that, that, right there, is a sort of sleight of hand most writers simply cannot pull off.
Also, that I can say you totally need to read the Acknowledgements section is another coup. I mean, how often do you say that? “Dude, the book was awesome. And the acknowledgements page? Totally rocked.”
Yes, well done sir. Well done indeed.
I know I’m supposed to rate the book, because I always see book reviews doing so, so, on a scale of Black Rain to Paranoid, I’m giving it a “Crazy Train.”
Click the link to buy the book at Amazon.com:
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