Published on November 1st, 2013 | by Craig Silliphant2
Heart-Shaped Box – Joe Hill
I read my first Stephen King book when I was around 10, but I haven’t really read one since I was a teenager. Somewhere as a young adult, I got into material that was better written, prose-wise, and I think King simultaneously began his decline, fading away from the inventive ideas that marked his earlier career. Actually, in full disclosure, I tried to read Cell a few years ago, his attempt at a zombie book, but I had to put it down after about 100 pages. It turned me as cold as a corpse, bored stiff (pun intended). Don’t get me wrong — it seems like it’s cool to put King down these days, but some of his books, like The Stand or The Shining, have a special place on my bookshelf. Let’s just say, I want to remember him as he was (or perhaps, I want to remember myself as I was, in my childhood days of reading).
Horror writer Joe Hill shot to success in 2007 with the release of Heart-Shaped Box, after almost a decade of toiling, trying to sell a novel. And then came the big reveal — Hill was outed as the son of Stephen King. In my mind, he did it the right way, so he could be known for his own merits as a writer, and not have to live in King’s monstrous shadow.
Oddly enough, the lead character of Heart-Shaped Box, aging rock star Judas Coyne, has his own daddy issues. He has been running from them all his life, into the arms of fame and fortune. But as time has passed, and the parties have ended, some of his bandmates even dying, Jude is content to prattle around his farmhouse with his lover-of-the-moment and his annoying assistant. One day, sort of as a lark, but sort of not, he buys a ghost online, only to discover that it wasn’t as random an encounter as he thought, and he’s thrust into a pitched battle with a dead man.
I read a lot of praise for Hill and the book on the Internet while I was looking for something to read one day. Hyperbolic praise that seemed to reach out of my computer monitor to grab me by the shirt collar and yell in my ugly face, “IF YOU’RE NOT READING THIS BOOK, YOU ARE STUPID! IT IS SO STUPENDOUSLY AMAZING! IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE!” Seriously, read even just the press blurbs page at the start of the book. This either had to be a great book, or Hill made a deal with Satan. How could I not read it? Plus, I was curious to see if the younger ‘King’ had some new ideas to bring to the table — and whether he might be a better writer than his father.
Books about music are hard to write, because coolness is so subjective. Hill gets a lot of the feel of the industry and the formerly hard-living character right, but he also lets his taste get in the way of how history happened. If Coyne is an aging rocker, akin to Black Sabbath or Judas Priest, who were figuratively castrated by the ‘grunge’ movement, then even the name of the book is suspect. It’s doubtful that Coyne would be into some of these later bands. They get name dropped because Hill is the right age to have been on both sides of metal and grunge. Also, he spells Black Crowes wrong.
The book starts to get really stagnant in the first third, as Coyne and his mistress are trapped in his house with the ghost, but thankfully, it breaks out of that containment when Jude decides to fight back. There are some creepy moments and some bizarre imagery in the story, though nothing that would make me afraid to turn out the lights at night. He does a good job of describing some weird shit, so that you can visualize it well, but not much of it is particularly frightening.
A Stephen King work is often defined by good characterization, and Hill does this well too. Judas Coyne isn’t bound to become a literary classic by any means, but he’s well drawn, and you usually get why he’s doing what he’s doing. By the end, I suppose I did care about what happened to him, which says a lot. But the characterizations are better than the scares.
I think the biggest problem though, wasn’t the fault of the book. It was the insane level of overhype in the marketing. I get that that’s how they sell the book, and I fell for it, I suppose. But fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Heart-Shaped Box is a decent enough horror read, but it didn’t make me rush to the web to order his latest book, N0S4A2. Hill isn’t a better writer than his Dad, but he’s not worse either. In fact, had you told me that King wrote Heart-Shaped Box, other than the more updated musical references, I would probably believed you. That being said, at the same general age, King’s imagination was boundless, where Hill hits a wall. Though perhaps Joe Hill will go the other way, and get better with age. We’ll have to see — though, if he gets better, I shudder to think about how hyperbolic the marketing will be.