Book Review – Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

Throughout 2017, one of my writing goals is to make a concerted effort to read more. I’m doing this for several reasons – to help me relax more, to be entertained and to help me progress as a writer. As Stephen King famously said: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

According to my Goodreads account, I’ve read 25 books this year, so I guess I must be following through on my goal. Among the books I’ve read have been several authors who were new to me, including Gregg Hurwitz, Paul Tremblay, J.H. Moncrieff and now Joe Hill.

When I read a book, I always leave a rating on Goodreads, but I have yet to leave what you might call a “useful” review. The reason? I never know what to write other than “it’s really good. I recommend it.” There are writers out there who do a way better job than me where reviews are concerned so I tend to leave it to them.

With that in mind, I want to talk about the book I’ve just finished reading. I was so engrossed in the story I finished it in less than a week. Only one other book has had that effect on me and that was “Head Full of Ghosts” by Paul Tremblay. To be clear, when I say book, I mean a physical, hold-in-your-hands, made of paper book.

I’ve read a few e-books on my Kindle tablet in short time – three in one week thanks to the excellent “City of Ghosts,” “The Girl Who Talks to Ghosts,” and “The Bear Who Wouldn’t Leave,” by J.H. Moncrieff.

So, what’s the title that has me all fired up and ready to try and write a review? Well, my friends, it’s Joe Hill’s “Heart-Shaped Box.” As I’ve already mentioned, this was my first Joe Hill novel, and on the strength of this, it sure won’t be the last one to grace my bookcase.

Story Summary

Judas (Jude) Coyne is a middle-aged, death-metal rock god living comfortably on the royalties of his albums. He lives in seclusion on a farm in upstate New York with his much-younger goth girlfriend, Georgia (a.k.a. Marybeth), his personal assistant, Danny and his two German Shepherds, Bonnie and Angus.

A collector of macabre artifacts, Jude’s collection includes a skull (of course), a cookbook for cannibals, sketches by John Wayne Gacy, a used hangman’s noose, a chess board from Aleister Crowley’s childhood, and a Mexican snuff movie that cost him his marriage. So, Barry Manilow he isn’t…

Nothing in his gory collection compares to the latest discovery, though. Danny tells Jude about an odd e-mail he’s received offering him the chance to own the suit of a dead man for $1,000. Nothing unusual there, you might think. However, the suit in question is haunted by the guy who wore it…

Thinking it would be good for his public image, Jude buys it and promptly forgets about it. Until it’s delivered…The black, heart-shaped box that Jude receives doesn’t just contain the dead man’s suit, but also his restless, vengeance-obsessed spirit.

The ghost is the stepfather of Anna (a.k.a. Florida), a depressed, suicidal ex-girlfriend (see a pattern appearing here with girlfriends’ names?) who took her own life after Jude abandoned her years before. Now, determined to kill Jude and anyone else who helps him, the relentless ghost of Vietnam veteran turned mesmerist Craddock McDermott has a personal vendetta to fulfill and begins a supernatural assault on Jude’s sanity.

The irony of all this is that Jude has spent his life exploiting the macabre with his music and stage persona and now he’s the target.

Suddenly Craddock, who has black scribbles instead of eyes, is everywhere Jude turns – behind the bedroom door, in Jude’s restored vintage Mustang, standing outside his window, staring out from his TV. He’s waiting for Jude with a gleaming razor blade on a chain dangling from his pale bony hand…

If you’ve already read the book, you’ll know the summary doesn’t do it justice, but I didn’t want to ruin it for new readers by including too many spoilers.

You Had Me at Chapter One…

Originally published in 2007, “Heart-Shaped Box” was Hill’s debut full-length work. It won the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel (2007), Locus Award for Best First Novel (2008), Macavity Award Nominee for Best First Mystery Novel (2008), ITW Thriller Award for Best First Novel (2008), and the British Fantasy Award Nominee for Best Novel (2008). I guess when you’re Stephen King’s son it’s only natural you continue the family legacy and write horror stories.

I can’t say enough about how well written and suspenseful this book is. It drew me in from the first line and never let up the intensity all the way through to the climax. Hill doesn’t spend a lot of time on backstory before taking the reader on a white-knuckle 200mph tale of terror.

There isn’t much in the way of character development early on. We learn more about their pasts as the story progresses. At times, I hated Jude and Georgia and at others, I wanted to help them. I honestly believe that it doesn’t matter whether you like the characters or not, you’re still going to enjoy the novel.

Dark and intense, “Heart-Shaped Box” never gives you the chance to take a breath. The plot is rich, full of horror and suspense. If you’re like me, once you start reading, you won’t want to put it down.

The ghost of Craddock McDermott is frightening. Some of the chapters he featured in left me breathless with suspense. The haunting scenes were rendered beautifully by Hill, playing themselves out in my mind like a movie.

Talking of movies, over the years there’s been a lot of talk about a movie version of “Heart-Shaped Box,” with Hill being on record as saying he would like to see Russell Crowe in the lead role. As I see it the project seems to be either stillborn or forgotten.

I’m not so sure about Russell Crowe in the lead role. Not because of Crowe’s acting ability, hell no – it’s just that I picture Judas Coyne as an eclectic mix of Alice Cooper, Zakk Wylde, and Dimebag Darrell. As I read the book, I kept seeing a sleazy, bearded Mickey Rourke-type character (think “The Expendables”) as Jude Coyne.

I would love to see the part of Georgia played by Rooney Mara in full “Lisbeth Salander” mode from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” For Craddock McDermott, believe it or not, I picture Steve Buscemi. If you’ve read the book, how did you picture the characters?

The only question I have remaining about “Heart-Shaped Box” is why on earth did it take me so long to get around to reading it? I think Joe Hill knocked it out of the park. It’s a gripping read and I highly recommend it.

The Haunted Pen Rating:

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