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Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill: John C Adams Reviews

Book name: Heart-Shaped Box

Author: Joe Hill

Publisher: William Morrow

Format: ebook, print, audiobook

Genre: Horror

Publication Date: 2009

Star Rating: 4/5

There’s always something special about a debut novel, and Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill is no exception. That said, it isn’t quite like any ghost story or any debut novel I’ve read before.

Heart-Shaped Box became a New York Times bestseller, and Joe Hill has won the World Fantasy Award as well as winning the Bram Stoker Award twice.

Jude Coyne is the sort of ageing rockstar who survives his bandmates, destroys his marriage and then lives with groupie after groupie until he gets bored with one and throws her out.

His habit of calling them by their state of origin is profoundly dehumanising. His current squeeze is Georgia (Marybeth) and her predecessor was Florida. You get the picture.

Now retired from touring and living quietly in the farm he bought for his now ex-wife, Jude loves his dogs and spends his days working on old cars and strumming at this guitar without ever quite writing any new material.

In his odd way he’s happy, although being with him takes a heavy toll on his young girlfriends. Florida (Anna) killed herself after suffering from depression through much of their relationship.

Jude’s assistant Danny shows him an email offering to sell Jude a ghost. By comparison with the snuff movie that he’s hoarding (a gift) along with other horror memorabilia the ghost seems positively harmless. However, when the suit arrives it soon becomes clear to Jude that he is being targeted by Anna’s sister Jessica, who is intent on avenging her sister’s suicide by sending their stepfather Craddock to haunt him.

Joe Hill creates one of the least likeable heroes I can remember in a horror story, but there is so much depth to Jude Coyne’s character that I ended up rooting from him almost from the beginning.

The carefully described backstory of his father’s violence and cruelty, as well as the emerging narrative that Anna’s suicide was not Jude’s fault after all, enabled me to see the deeper person behind the selfish man who began Heart-Shaped Box.

This wasn’t a redemption arc, so much as getting to know Jude better. When we learn more about Craddock’s crimes towards his family, we realise that Jude is far and away the lesser evil.

His relationship with Marybeth is tested by their flight from the farm to her grandmother Bammy and on to Louisiana, where Jude’s father lays dying. They are running from Craddock’s ghost, who has a unique ability to control their thoughts and put them in physical danger.

Heart-Shaped Box was largely a road trip narrative, which was entirely appropriate given Jude’s career as a heavy metal rockstar. However, Joe Hill carefully turned the road trip into a journey of discovery for the reader, as Jude uses Ouija to communicate with Anna and find out about Craddock’s crimes.

The story is drenched in ghosts and the supernatural. Bammy lost her twin sister as a child, and Marybeth has seen the little girl’s ghost. Jude does too, and is able to communicate with her just before she is snatched from their front garden.

He can’t change the outcome, a theme that will return when communicating with Anna, but he can share that he cared for her just as he gives Bammy’s sister peace by letting her know that people cared enough about her to shout out a warning just before she was taken. That element of the story was very moving.

The relationship between the dead and the living in Heart-Shaped Box is immensely complicated. Joe Hill’s achievement with this debut novel is amazing. It’s one of the best first novels I have ever read. There was so much depth of portrayal in the hero plus the immersive ghost element too.

Thank you for reading my review of Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill.

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John C Adams Reviews

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