Joe Hill – 2007, 402 pages
Fiction, Horror – Not Recommended
You may or may not have read anything by Joe Hill, and you may or may not know it’s a pen name for Joseph Hillstrom King. If you were to read Heart-Shaped Box, you might not be surprised to learn he’s also the son of Stephen King. It contains several elements often found in his father’s work. Unfortunately, one of those elements is a convenient, unsatisfying ending.
One borrowed element is the use of pop culture references. In this case, heavy metal music. The main character is an aging rockstar, Judas Coyne, who got half of his name from the band Judas Priest and has two dogs with names connected to AC/DC. It’s not a crime. Just an easy and effective way to create familiarity and comfort with readers.
Judas is on the downside of his career. He’s lost some popularity, relevance, and motivation, but he’s playing around some rough demo tracks. Recent years including spending money on interesting occult items and spending time with less-than-interesting young groupies. The macabre artifacts include a witch’s confession and a snuff film, the latter possibly contributing to his divorce. The groupies include girls from Florida and Georgia, and he refers to them as “Florida” and “Georgia” partly for convenience and partly because they likely won’t be in his life very long. In fact, Florida was replaced by Georgia, but Judas’s interest in her, much like his career, has been fading. I was going to make a peach joke, but nah.
The rockstar’s live-in assistant, Danny, gets an offer for what he assumes his boss would love – a dead man’s suit, which includes the deceased’s ghost that follows the clothing in which he was buried. The suit arrives in a heart-shaped box, a phrase that many consider a euphemism for a uterus. In a way, this man – or at least his ghost – is re-born. It isn’t long after the box arrives that Judas occasionally sees the ghost. Picture him a little like John Turturro’s character in the film Secret Window.
At first, he’s just an old man sitting quietly in a chair. He eventually speaks to Judas, although nobody else can see or hear him. His voice and demeanor are much like a Southern preacher, but his actions are like a demented hypnotist. He stands threateningly and invisibly near Georgia and attempts to convince Judas to harm her and even harm himself.
Something about the ghost’s presence convinces Danny to leave in a panic. Something else about his presence sends the dogs into beast mode, which frightens the ghost. Judas sees shadow images semi-departing the dogs’ bodies as they lunge towards the old man, and he disappears for a short time. Judas realizes he needs to keep the dogs close by.
Before Danny leaves, he confesses to Judas that this ghost box suit thing wasn’t just another eBay purchase. He hadn’t told his boss that it was an email offer sent directly to him. When he contacts the seller, he learns a critical connection. The seller is the sister of Florida, his former groupie girlfriend who committed suicide after Judas had sent her back home. This ghost is the groupie’s stepfather, Craddock McDermott, and he was sent in revenge with a vow that Judas and anyone important to him will soon die. Craddock is more than just a stepfather to Florida, but I’ll let you discover that yourself if you read the book.
Judas realizes the only thing he can do is get to Florida and confront the woman who sold him the suit and the ghost. He doesn’t know what he’ll do or how he’ll do it, but he also knows that he can’t continue to fight it on his own. He packs his dogs and his cliché of a rockstar’s young girlfriend into a rockstar’s cliché of a restored Mustang, and they all head south.
Something about ghosts, not that they’re real or anything, that causes confusion is theorizing whether or not they can actually harm anyone because they’re not physical beings. In this case, Craddock doesn’t directly harm anyone but instead is able to occasionally control and use other people to cause harm. In one case, he steers a speeding car towards them. The couple escapes unharmed, but the driver does not.
There’s nothing terribly “wrong” about Heart-Shaped Box, but there’s nothing impressively “right” either. The descriptions are minimal, which is a good thing. Hill, like his father, let’s the reader fill in the blanks. Less is more. The pacing is balanced with enough time spent on the run battling the ghost offset by moments such as meeting people from Georgia’s past. It’s not non-stop action without time to catch your breath.
There are two problems that are acceptable for most readers, but not for me.
*** Spoilers Ahead! ***
First, the dogs. They’re not just dogs. According to Wikipedia, they are “familiars,” a type of dog with a built-in spirit-like thing that apparently can attack or at least affect evil spirits. It isn’t clear if Judas knew that his dogs were upgraded. He didn’t react surprised, but there isn’t much else to go on. At the least, it certainly was convenient, and that’s been a constant complaint of his father’s work. Runs in the family, I guess. As for these familiars, Wikipedia suggests the existed to help witches, not rockstars.
The second problem is also a matter of convenience, and it mirrors a device once used by his pop. In Joyland, there’s a woman who lives near an amusement park at which the main character works. It is casually mentioned at a harmless moment that this woman was an experienced target or sharpshooter or something like that. That sure came in handy at the climax when a potential murderer was holding a hostage at the top of a ferris wheel. In Heart-Shaped Box, it is casually mentioned that Georgia is an accomplished knife thrower. That sure came in handy at the climax when this ghost takes over the body of Judas’s father and is on the verge of killing his son. Convenient to say the least.
Overall, finding parallels between this book and most of the elder King’s work is unavoidable. That doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy Heart-Shaped Box. It only means that I didn’t enjoy it.