Joe Hill is nearly the spitting image of his father with Heart-Shaped Box, a ghostly thriller with the same sort of villains and dialogue Stephen King might have written. I've already read Horns, so I know Joe Hill has his own style, and I believe he will grow into an excellent horror writer with unique ideas. Heart-Shaped Box isn't quite as good as Horns, as it suffers from habits I'm worried could bog down some of Hill's later works. For one, Hill loves to give background information. He allows background information to take over the main plot where just a little bit of background information might have been more effective. It's a shame, too, because the novel has lots of promise at the start and even gets good again towards the end.
Judas Coyne, known as Jude, has retired from the heavy metal lifestyle after members of his band passed away due to one cause or another. Still filthy rich, Jude collects grotesque objects, such as a five-hundred-year-old peasant skull and a three-hundred-year-old confession signed by a witch. He also owns a video of a gang suffocating a couple (and it's this video that understandably precipitates his divorce). Jude even collects women and names them after states like Florida and Georgia. These women, like Jude, also love the grotesque, dressing in the Goth fashion of black hair, lipstick, and fingernails. Jude's obsession with grotesque objects eventually leads him to purchase a ghost.
Now, he doesn't directly purchase the ghost. He purchases a suit that belonged to the deceased. This suit is shipped to him in a heart-shaped box. His dogs, Angus and Bon, don't like it. His girlfriend, Georgia, doesn't like it either. Jude himself begins to dislike it when a creepy old man with a razor-sharp pendulum begins to make an appearance. Eventually, Jude's secretary, named Danny, drives himself to suicide, and it seems clear that this ghost is out to kill Jude and everyone he loves. Jude discovers that this ghost is the grandfather of Jude's troubled ex-girlfriend, Florida, who apparently committed suicide not long after Jude kicked him out. So the ghost is out for revenge, right?
The story goes back and forth between Jude and Georgia's escape from the ghost to background information about Jude's past, namely his relationship with Florida (the woman, not the state). It's not that this background is bad, per se, but it delves too far and takes on improvised characteristics, where revelations from the past help form plot points in the present. This seems lazy, the way that Jude suddenly remembers important things with perfect clarity. There is a lot of emotional power in what happens in the story, but the improvised feeling takes away the emotional impact from these events. Florida, anyway, is not the one we were following from the start. It is Jude and Georgia we care about, but their stories are sidelined. Hill had a similar problem with Horns, which has a terrific opening, but then stalls with a needlessly long background story.
Hill does write some powerful passages of horror. His description of the ghost, Craddock, is his best work in the whole story. Craddock is what makes the story interesting, since Jude and Georgia fail to have an intriguing personality despite their anti-social tendencies. When Craddock first appears, the imagery Hill uses is haunting. At that point I thought that I was in for a treat. Unfortunately, Hill never replicates that horror. There are some moments of fear for the lives of the main characters, and some moments of awful violence. But, as threatening as the ghost is, he disappears and reappears at the convenience of the plot. He is there, however, just enough to let us know this will end in death, his or theirs. At least something big is at stake.
In his first two novels, Hill displays a love of music. Heart-Shaped Box is devoted almost entirely to heavy metal/rock n' roll. The references to rock bands are everywhere. Jude's own name is an obvious reference to The Beatles (a band Ig in Horns loved a lot, and a band King also adores). Nirvana is another reference, and there is also mention of the Foo Fighters, Metallica, and others. It's disappointing this music doesn't have a very big impact on the plot. It seems that Hill missed an opportunity that his novel's title promised. Hill clearly wants to aim for something unique, but his heavy focus on background information grounds him in conventional plotting. His story is well-organized and it plods along slowly and deliberately, like a storyteller who wants to take his time and let the story live on as long as he can - just as Jude clings to life. These are the tells of a good storyteller, and I hope Hill has his breakout moment soon. It would be nice to have a new horror writer to look forward to for another generation.