Written by: Joe Hill
Reviewed by: Joe Bones
I recently became aware of Joe Hill after AMC announced they are making a television show out of one of his other novels, NOS4A2. Having never read anything by this author, I decided to check him out. I listened to the audio book of NOS4A2, and although I enjoyed it, I wasn’t really that impressed. However, I did like his style of prose so I decided to give one of his other works a try. That’s when I stumbled across Heart-Shaped Box, which happens to the first full novel Hill ever wrote.
I’m a huge fan of supernatural horror and this book’s premise really grabbed my attention. Jonas Coin, a musician and former front man of a heavy metal band, has a collection of macabre items which he has accumulated over the years. His collection includes a used hangman’s noose, a snuff film, and sketches drawn by John Wayne Gacy. At the beginning of the novel Jonas has a chance to purchase the suit of a deceased mystic and hypnotist named Craddock McDermott. Craddock’s ghost is said to be bound to the suit itself. Jonas buys the suit to add to his collection, and that’s when the true haunting begins. Jonas and his girlfriend Georgia begin to be tormented by Craddock. They spend the rest of the story trying to rid themselves of his ghost.
My favorite supernatural horror stories play with the idea that the haunting may be more psychological than supernatural in nature. Craddock having been a hypnotist during his life puts a cool spin on this concept. Hill also puts a new twist on the restless spirit with unfinished business trope by inserting elements of a revenge thriller into the story.
The story itself has more dialogue than action or scary moments, but Hill does a really great job of building suspense. Once a charged moment occurs, the tension doesn’t just drop back down to “zero.” Instead it diminishes just enough so that it can rise even higher when the reader reaches the next high point of action or suspense. The entire story is a slow build filled with strong character development. This character development and the gradual reveal of background details about the characters never distract from the main plot. They work together with the main narrative, finally concluding in a satisfying climax. In the final chapters Hill also wraps up his loose ends and gives characters an epilogue in a very succinct fashion. Normally after the climax of a supernatural story, I find that the author writes way more of an ending then needed. Making it feel like they were just trying to make their book slightly longer. Heart-Shaped Box feels like just the right length and an appropriate amount of time is dedicated to each of the components of the story.
Heart-Shaped Box isn’t the scariest ghost story you will ever read. Nor does is add anything new to the genre. Yet it is an engaging and well rounded story. It doesn’t have the issues I find in a lot of supernatural horror, and so I gave it a rating just above the site’s median grade. Hill has a knack for writing stories that are both spooky and character driven. This is evident in all of his works, but especially so in this debut novel. Heart-Shaped Box is definitely worth a read, especially if you’ve never read any of Hill’s other novels or if you’d like to take on book that is shorter than most of his others.