Sometimes books have such an alluring, fresh premise, that such a premise can carry it quite a ways, if the author runs out of steam for the story. Heart-Shaped Box, the 2007 debut novel from Joe Hill, (yes, Stephen King’s son, Joe Hill) has that killer premise — death metal rock star buys a ghost off of a knockoff eBay; horror ensues — but I do think it probably would have been better off as a tight short story rather than a full-length novel. Put it this way, I don’t mind listening to some death metal, but would I want to listen to three hours of death metal? No, thanks.
The story follows Judas “Jude” Coyne, who is an aging rock star and predictably ghastly in the way he treats his underling, Danny, and womanizing, calling his conquests by the state in which they come from, such as Tennessee, Florida and the latest, Georgia, aka, Marybeth. He’s into collecting the macabre to go along with his brand as a death metal rocker. But he gets bamboozled into buying the ghost (through the suit the man who recently died once wore) from Florida’s (aka Anne’s) sister, Jessica Price, who blames Jude for Anne’s suicide. In other words, the sister wanted the ghost, who was her and the Anne’s stepdad, to haunt and kill Jude.
Meanwhile, Jude also has a backstory of having a miserable, wife-beating, dying father, Martin, who Jude hasn’t seen in more than 30 years. Jude also used to go by his real name of Justin, but again, to flee that former life, he took on the death metal rock persona. The metaphor being that Jude, in a way, is a ghost manifesting after the “death” of Justin. Or maybe Justin is the ghost haunting Jude? In any event, it’s hard not to see the parallels in real life given that Joe Hill goes by Joe Hill instead of Joe King and has a famous father!
Also, something I couldn’t help but notice is that King loves to weave music references into his novels and that’s very much the case here. Heck, the name of the book itself is a great, famous Nirvana song. A difference, however, between King and Hill is that Hill’s action got rolling pretty quickly, whereas King takes time to build up to the action. So quickly, in fact, that I was doing my, “Well, we still have two hundred pages left, so now what?” reflection. Which is why I have that feeling the book would have worked better as a short story.
One final criticism I would lob at the book is that, at least initially and even with knowing his sad backstory, Jude isn’t exactly a likable protagonist and neither is Georgia. However, after a while of going through the brutality at the hands of the ghost with them, they become more likable. Particularly when I got to the twist at the end of with Anna, I was certainly rooting against the ghost by that point.
That said, because of the strong premise and the curiosity of where this was going, the book kept my attention and interest. I was particularly fond of the idea that dogs — in this case, Jude’s two dogs, Angus and Bon — are capable of fending off malcontent ghosts. They might have even been my favorite characters!
As I mentioned, it’s hard not think about Stephen King when reading his son’s book and that’s not entirely fair to Hill, but it is what it is. I would put Heart-Shaped Box in the middle-of-the-pack among King’s books. That is, not near King’s best, but certainly not a bad book by any means. It’s capable. Yes, capable I think is the word to go with, particularly given it’s a debut novel and in the shadow of King.
I would recommend this one for a rather light, fun read.
If you’ve read Hill, what did you think?