Saturday, August 14, 2010

Girl on Book Action: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
ISBN: 978-0-06-114794-4


“I will ‘sell’ my stepfather’s ghost to the highest bidder...”

An aging death-metal rock god, Judas Coyne is a collector of the macabre: a cookbook for cannibals...a used hangman’s noose...a snuff film. But nothing he possesses is as unlikely or as dreadful as an item he learns is for sale on the Internet. For a thousand dollars, Jude will become the proud owner of a dead man’s suit, said to be haunted by the deceased’s restless spirit. Judas has spent a lifetime coping with ghosts – of an abusive father, of the lovers he callously abandoned, of the bandmates he betrayed – so what’s one more?

But what UPS delivers to his door in a black heart-shaped box is no imaginary of metaphorical ghost, it’s the real thing. And suddenly the suit’s previous owner is everywhere – behind the bedroom door...seated in Jude’s restored vintage Mustang...staring out from his widescreen TV – dangling a gleaming razor blade on a chain from one hand...


My Thoughts:

So I’ve heard many good things about the writing of Joe Hill, in regard to both Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, but I have to say, I’m a little disappointed.

The book was creepy, I will admit to that. I made a point of not reading it before bed, but the end sort of ruined all of that for me. It was just...a letdown. Everything wrapped up too neatly. It made me think back to seeing the Silent Hill movie: there were some awesomely creepy parts, like with the nurses in the basement (you know what I’m talking about if you sat through this flick), but the end totally destroyed whatever feeling of unease had been created earlier on. The same is true for this book. Make of that what you will.

The thing about this novel is that while I was reading it I enjoyed it okay, but the more I think about it the more problems I find with it. The review is going to be largely negative when I didn’t necessarily hate what I was reading at the time. All the issues I’m going to discuss I noticed as I was making my way through the story, but they didn’t seem that prevalent in the midst of things. This small fact is a point in Hill's favour, as the atmosphere kept me preoccupied enough not to notice how certain details really rubbed me the wrong way. Upon reflection, however, I’m really questioning the whole thing.

For one, I didn’t like the representation of the female characters at all and of “Goth girls” in general. Jude sees them all as interchangeable and doesn’t even use their names, but instead refers to them as whatever State they’re from and that really bothered me. And that wasn’t the whole of it – to Jude, they all basically had the same history with a few variations and he didn’t allow for them to be individuals with personalities. They were just Goth girls; one is much like the next to him. When he starts to conflate Anna / Florida (his ex) and Marybeth / Georgia (his current) into one person the whole thing got even worse. Women, no matter how they dress, are not interchangeable. My feminist hackles were raised, to say the least.

This was my major problem with Heart-Shaped Box, but as it ran throughout the book it was a constant one. The more I think about it, the more I get the sense that this callousness in Jude might actually be more frightening than the vengeful ghost. While this is (hopefully) deliberate on the part of Hill to make a flawed character, he overshoots the mark and makes Jude too much of a bad guy. You don't want him to succeed or be happy, you don't care about his well-being. You get the feeling that he deserves what's coming to him.

The writing was actually pretty good and was a big reason for not putting the book down. The pacing was spot on and kept me turning pages. At times, I could feel my heart start to race with the action. So clearly, Joe Hill has some solid writing skills.

I guess my overall impression is that I wish the ending hadn’t taken so much away from the rest of the book. If I had been more satisfied with how the story ended I might not have been so critical of the content, because, let’s face it, I’m all about narrative satisfaction and I didn’t get that here. My suspension of disbelief did not survive the ending of this book. Everything wrapped up too neatly, and was too sugary-sweet. It just didn't work. So, I don’t really feel that I can recommend it, though if you wanted to read it and stop reading with about 20 pages left you might not come away with the sense of being let down that still lingers with me.


  1. Great review. I never considered the feminist position but it makes a lot of sense. I didn't think about it before, but now that you pointed it out I can see how it might compromise the character for some.

    This is one of my favorite books. I picked it up right before it was revealed that Hill was Stephen King's son. When I saw it at the book store it had a Neil Gaiman blurb on the back, an Alan Moore quote at the beginning, and the title was a Nirvana song - how could I not buy it???

    I remember reading this book in broad daylight and being terrified. I have never had a book affect me like that. The audio version is very good as well. Good narrator.

  2. Thanks! I've thought about it some more since I wrote the review (it's been a few weeks) and I guess the fact that Jude's father was abusive is supposed to explain why Jude is the way he is. Overall though it seems to me that abuse was the reason for all of the characters being flawed and while I think that it's an important issue for society, Hill could have stretched his imagination a little and given some variety in the backstory of his characters.

    Also, we're supposed to feel that Jude is growing and learning as a person and that is supposed to make the ending work and it doesn't because I didn't connect with his growth.


    I remember people being really excited about it when it first came out, but I wasn't interested in ghost stories at the time so I skipped it.

    I wish the scariness had survived the end so that when I thought about the book I'd get that sense of dread again.