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Heart-Shaped Box: A Novel
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172 of 181 people found the following review helpful
I'll finish the sentence that started this review in a bit. First, two disclaimers or confessions here:

1. I don't normally like horror stories.

2. I don't usually like novels that have to do with the supernatural or life beyond the grave or any of that - with some notable exceptions. Many of them simply don't seem all that engrossing. Gross? Maybe. But captivating? Not usually.

But this book grabbed hold of me from the start. It could be because I've been thinking about mortality lately and so the plot (centering on life and death, love and revenge) was compelling to me. But I don't think so. I think it is truly a good book.

The plot:

Judas Coyne (known simply as Jude to most) collects macabre objects, even snuff films (and yes, this is a sign that his soul is a bit awry and aching). But when he buys a dead man's suit he isn't prepared for what is coming to haunt him.

Joe Hill, the author of this novel, did such a fine job creating the atmosphere and characters in this book that I didn't want to put it down. Jude Coyne, the main guy in this one, isn't prone to staying in relationships and he can be a cold, hard man. As the book progresses, I found his evolution and development to be compelling. I was rooting for him. Would he be able to face his internal and external ghosts, past and present, and become a better person for it? I really wanted to know and I found him to be believable, however flawed (and maybe more compelling because of his flaws).

The author has a firm grasp on the art of creating cliff-hanger endings for chapters. Take this sentence: "And who knew that getting a finger blown off and losing half a pint of blood could be so good for your sense of humor?", for example. It may not be a main sentence but it gave me pause because...

It takes a gutsy author to pull off a sentence like that but it works, amazingly. If the thought of that intrigues you even a little, I suggest you grab this one. It is now available in paperback. Next to building the Eiffel Tower in Legos, reading this book was the most entertaining - and challenging - thing I did all week.
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156 of 176 people found the following review helpful
I was a Stephen King fan going way back and always love to get my hands on a new book that makes me feel like I did when I first read King classics like The Shining, The Stand and Misery--like I was riding in a car barrelling down a road at night, going a little fast for my comfort but knowing that the driver had a sure hand on the wheel...even if he's overdriving the headlights just a little and the landscape around the car is getting more surreal, I'm sure we'll make it out okay on the other side so I just have to buckle in and enjoy the ride.

It's been a long time since I've enjoyed a horror/supernatural book in that way. When I saw the great reviews for Joe Hill's Heart Shaped Box, I got my hopes up and hurried to get the book in my hands. I was not in the least disappointed.

Heart Shaped Box is a bit of a horror tale, more than a hint of Southern Gothic, a road story but above all it is a tale of redemption. Judas Coyne is a heavy metal rocker who used his music to express the anger and hurt of his own abusive upbringing, and is now living in luxurious if semi-meaningless retirement. He manages his holdings, has a succession of much younger girlfriends named after states, and has a collection of oddities bought off the internet or purchased over the years. So he can't resist the opportunity to buy a real ghost, which comes attached to an old fashioned suit the ghost used to wear.

As soon as the ghost arrives, however, Judas finds there's much more at stake. He's been set up, and this ghost-or whatever it is-has a very personal vendetta with him. He and everyone close to him will die, the ghost promises. The rest of the story unfolds the plot against Judas, and his attempts to outrun the ghost and its vengeance, saving his own life and that of his latest girlfriend. In the process he tries to redeem not only his own humanity, but that of Georgia, the latest girlfriend, and Florida, the one whose tragic death set the entire ghostly plan into motion.

Like my favorite STephen King books, there are moments of absolute realism and moments of almost absurd grossness that is nonetheless unforgettable. The plot is tightly wound and never loses steam, and even better, both Judas and the other main character, Georgia, develop into people I was genuinely rooting for. I read this book in less than a day and eagerly await more from Joe Hill. If you like good horror and good suspense, this is one to check out.
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74 of 85 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon April 15, 2007
Judas Coyne is an aging rock singer with an unusual hobby. He collects macabre items related to death. He even has a snuff film. So one day when his business manager tells him somebody is selling a ghost in an online auction he just can't resist. Little does he know he is getting exactly what he paid for. Once the suit containing the ghost arrives in a heart shaped box the wild action begins as Coyne and his girlfriend, MaryBeth (who he calls Georgia), are in a fight for their lives. It turns out the ghost, Craddock, has a grudge against Judas Coyne and he's come back to seek revenge.

Heart-Shaped Box is definitely a fast paced, action packed ghost story. Hill does an excellent job in characterization. He is really masterful at making the characters and their personalities come alive as we empathize with both Coyne and MaryBeth as the tale unravels and Coyne slowly begins to understand why Craddock has come back from the dead to seek his revenge. In fact, Hill does and excellent job in conveying the personality and character of the ghost as the reader learns more about Mr. Craddock and his past. As the story develops, with wild harrowing scenes, Coyne begins to learn how he might just be able to survive this haunting. For its fast pace and excellent character development Hill definitely should be commended.

But there is a dark side. Frankly as the novel moves along it starts to read, at times, like a B grade horror movie, which for this reader was a bit of a turnoff. The later scenes get more and more sappy where Craddock started reminding me of Freddy Krueger from the movie Nightmare on Elm Street and the story really started getting rather campy. As a result, I found the novel entertaining enough, but rather average on the whole.
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69 of 87 people found the following review helpful
Reading HEART-SHAPED BOX is like getting sucker-punched with a vicious left hook to the gut. This book comes with a mean streak and a bittersweet aftertaste. At not quite 400 pages, it feels like a slimmer novel, it motors along so easily. I got so immersed into the reading of this book that the alarm clock went off and totally shocked me with all the time that had sped by.

SPOILERS begin.

The plot involves aging rock star Judas Coyne who, in the course of his rock-and-rolling career, has casually amassed an assortment of freaky memorabilia (sketches of the Seven Dwarfs by John Wayne Gacy, Aleister Crowley's childhood chessboard, a three-hundred-year-old confession signed by a witch, etc). On a whim, while viewing an online auction site, he purchases a ghost for a thousand dollars, this ghost being embodied in the dead man's old-fashioned Sunday suit. Not until later does Jude find out that that auction site was meant for him - and him alone...

Jude thinks nothing more of his purchase until, some time later, a UPS truck drops off a black, heart-shaped box housing the suit. Immediately after, eerie and unsettling events begin to happen, starting with Jude's alarming glimpse of a shadowy old man sitting in his hallway one ominous night. From there, it gets really, really frightening and perilous as he and his lived-in, much younger girlfriend Georgia (he always calls his girlfriends by their state of origin) are mercilessly haunted and terrorized by the vindictive ghost.

The ghost is written as such a powerful and malevolent entity that I really couldn't fathorm how Jude and Georgia could possibly end up on the sunny side of things. Thru the course of the novel, we find out that the spirit, whose real name is Craddock McDermott, had been a celebrated hypnotist and dowser while alive. In life, his preferred tool of trade was his razor blade dangling from a chain, which he had used as a focusing point for his hypnotisms. Now it serves to add to the boo factor. In death, Craddock's powers of persuasion seem to have increased exponentially as, now, he is able to rapidly and even more insidiously influence his victims. Craddock also has a way of inhabiting radios and televisions as he uses these mechanical objects to further harass Jude and Georgia, and, in one instance, influence a non-involved driver to nearly run them down. Each progressive encounter with Craddock finds Jude and Georgia more wounded and devastated as their terrified flight from the ghost becomes rapidly tinged with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.

One of the reasons I picked up this book is that, sometime last year, I read (either in Daily Variety or Hollywood Reporter) that Joe Hill was, in fact, the son of my all-time favorite horror writer, Stephen King. I was curious to see if the horror gene is transferrable. The answer seems to be...yes. HEART-SHAPED BOX is Joe Hill's first full-length novel, but it doesn't read like a rookie effort. The pace and aura of dread are relentless. And, thanks to Hill's uncompromising, fully-realized characters, he imbues the supernatural story with a solid grounding. Pretty much everyone in the book has been hurt in the past, at one time or another, emotionally, psychologically, and/or physically. The protagonist himself, Jude Coyne, is, a lot of times, an unmitigated bastard and an unapologetically thoughtless and cruel protagonist. Jude's road to fame is strewn with the sad results of his wild excesses, friends he had betrayed, and women he had casually flung aside. Hill thoroughly covers Jude's tortured past, detailing in full why he's turned out the way he did. That the reader ends up ultimately empathizing with him is a credit to Joe Hill's writing.

In fact, the author does a good job of fleshing out all of his characters. I particularly find intriguing Jude's relationship with current "love" Georgia (real name MaryBeth). Georgia is almost 30 years his junior, yet the age disparity doesn't dissuade her from being firmly in love with him. Jude, for his part, is kind of fond of Georgia but isn't sure how deep his feelings for her go. Much more painful to read are the flashback portions narrating Jude's doomed, earlier relationship with the troubled Florida (real name, Anna), who, by the way, plays an integral part in why the suit ended up with Jude.

End SPOILERS.

Hill has a talent for writing wicked scary sequences. There are well-executed passages early on which lay down a sense of foreboding, which Hill later brings to full realization with pay-off scenes of spine-tingling chills. I'll say it again, this ghost is one formidable and implacable mother. HEART-SHAPED BOX is creepy and suspenseful, and, sure, it's uncomfortable reading, at times, as Joe Hill doesn't pull his punches. But he weaves his story so well and so intimately that you can't help but be caught up in his story. And if you enjoy HEART-SHAPED BOX, then I definitely recommend Joe Hill's excellent 20th CENTURY GHOSTS (an earlier compilation of 15 of his short stories, not all horror, but all pretty darn good reading).

So, c'mon, get in that vintage Mustang and coast down that nightroad and join a 50-something-year-old rock god, his sweet groupie girlfriend, his two faithful dogs, and his two ghosts, one perhaps benevolent and the other wickedly restless as hell. But you might want to leave that radio off, huh? You just never know...
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35 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on March 24, 2007
Another case of hype of almost Davinchi Code proportions. The novel is a passable effort, better than Stephen King's lesser books, nowhere near King at his best. [...] The premise sounded great, the first few pages draw you in, but from there the writing is plodding, flat, and often pretty boring. Lots of dull predictable inner-monologue stuff pads it out: 'Jude's body was turned so she couldn't see the photograph, a lucky thing. He didn't want her to see it.' Same page: 'Jude imagined telling her, turning to show her the snapshot at the same time. He didn't do it, though.' Thank you, sir, for the information. There are pages and pages of this, all dry as a bone and dull, the author making the mistake of assuming he has the reader's undivided interest and attention. There are also clumsy word choices, for instance when saying Jude's possession of a snuff film "indirectly" led to the breakdown of his marriage. Later we find the wife left because she'd found the film - so it was directly, not indirectly. There's many clumsy author insertions of information whose purpose is to justify the plot: 'But how did they know we would buy the haunted suit?' 'Well Jude, because XYZ.'

The story is also one-dimensional. In King's best work, there are many things happening in the lives of the major characters. In this story, maybe Jude could have been struggling with a drug problem, or the demands for a come-back tour, bankruptcy, or anything else. But, it is just Jude and the ghost, Jude and the ghost, all the way through: Jude acting frightened and confused about the ghost. The ghost doing something to make him yet more frightened and confused. Jude resolving to stick it out though he is confused and frightened. Cue the ghost to do something frightening and confusing. Etc etc etc. No buildup of suspense, no gradual introduction: the ghost is just thrown in there at the start, whereas effective ghost stories are effective when you don't actually see the ghost, when it's just some background presence you're not even sure is really there.

This is too obviously a first novel, and I think Hill's connections have set him at a disadvantage, rather than an advantage. Most first time novelists will have to get to the top of their game before they make it. Hill didn't, whatever the PR story about whether his agent/publisher knew his parentage. If he has what it takes to stand on his own feet as an author, we're still waiting to see it.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on August 31, 2008
"Heart-Shaped Box" will not set any literary circles on fire, but I found the debut novel smart, imaginative and a scary ride from start to finish.

Joe Hill's first novel is a ghost story; plain and simple. He delivers a decent story that does not take the ghost story into uncharted territory, but he does make the ghost story fun and scary again. Hill creates a sustained atmosphere of tension with haunting vignettes and encounters with a ghost who has the best ghost name I have come across in a while: Craddock. The horror scenes seem to be staged at strategic intervals throughout the book, as if it was a television show and each segment between commercials was required to have a chilling moment. However, every time the story could have become repetitious, Hill surprises the reader with a smart twist to makes everything fresh again.

There is also a strong emotional pull within the story that affected me. There is an underlying theme about the loneliness of death and the horrors of suffering alone. Time and again characters experience horrors alone with no one to comfort them and help them with their physical and emotional pain or their passing from life to death. This is never truer than with the story of Ruth. Although a very minor plot line, Ruth's story was told simply and powerfully.

Hill's writing was a little bland and some of the imagery seemed to be taken straight from a Japanese horror film, but the story alone is worth the price of admission. It is not earth shattering in its uniqueness, but it is so well told with imaginative frights that it had me hooked and loving every mile traveled with these characters.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on November 27, 2009
The first night that I started reading this book I made it through about 50 pages and I had nightmares. It was that creepy. Unfortunately, after this point the cliched b-horror elements started to pile up one after another. Dream sequence, check; ouija board pulled out at random to communicate with the dead, check; hypnotic visions of past events to explain back-story, check; and so forth. Overall, a really poor book that I do not recommend.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
While some authors write simple morality tales in which evil characters get exactly what they deserve, Joe Hill has taken us one step further. The story centers on Jude Coyne, a middle aged death-metal rock star who is obsessed with ghoulish memorabilia and has the collection to prove it. His latest acquisition, purchased on an internet auction, purports to be the ghost of the sellers step-father and his favorite suit. When the UPS truck arrives Jude finds a black heart shaped box containing the old man's suit. As soon as the suit is taken from the box, Jude's life becomes inhabited by Craddock, a formidable dead man with a ghostly plan for Jude.

Like neopolitan ice cream, the story has several different flavors.....a touch of A Christmas Carol, the TV movie Duel, with perhaps a bit of James Patterson....and of course dear old dad (Stephen King)but don't think that this is a King clone, it's not. The book and story have a life of their own and after a few chapters, you won't care who Hill's father is....you will just be interested in the trials and tribulations of Jude Coyne.

If you enjoy the horror genre, this is your next purchase! Just don't buy it on the internet.....or it may arrive with more than you bargained for.
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39 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2011
I didn't know that Joe Hill was Stephen King's son until I looked up the book on here. And boy does that explains a lot.
I've read several books by Stephen king, and like many authors, his later books just don't carry the same thrill that the earlier ones do. It's almost as though authors lose their touch as they get older, and they care more about the all mighty dollar, than producing a good quality read.

Unfortunately, Joe Hill seems to have one foot on each side. While the Heart-Shaped Box was creepy, and the storyline was original and mildly interesting, I couldn't find much to like about it.
The characters were totally unlikable to me.
Jude, is a washed up old rock star, with a woe is me attitude. He's uncaring where others and their feelings are concerned, and looks to others to blame for his shortcomings. He has a habit of calling all the women he's slept with, not by their real name, but the name of the state they're from. His current girlfriend, Georgia, aka Marybeth, isn't much better. Both characters come across as callous and immature.

Towards the end of the book, I really didn't care one way or another if they both died. Even after it was all said and done, while there was some development on their parts, I still couldn't bring myself to like them.
The only time I felt bad for anyone in the book, was when the dogs died, then I felt bad for the dogs. It's not their fault that their owners were idiots, but they sure paid for it.

There was just so much crap, and smut in the story, and it didn't add anything.
No one character you meet could carry on a conversion without swearing at least once in the duration of it.
All the encounters with the ghosts, right down to the last one, seem choppy and disjointed. With the possessions and the ghosts acting through other people, it made it a little hard to follow at times. The last battle with Craddock seemed rushed, and for something that the entire book was leading up to, that was a disappointment.

If Joe Hill had cleaned up and refined the story, it would've been more interesting for me. As it is, he doesn't stand out above the rest, he seemed more interested in filling enough pages to call it a "novel" to be then called a "debut" so more people would read it, thinking that they stumbled onto fresh talent.
I don't plan on reading more of his books.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 12, 2008
Jude Coyne, an aging rock star with a penchant for macabre artifacts, purchases a ghost online--but when the dead man's suit and spirit arrives, Jude learns that the ghost is far from harmless, as he was lead to believe. Instead, the ghost intends to lead Jude to his death, terrorizing Jude and his girlfriend Georgia and forcing them to journey back to Jude's roots in the American South. Despite Hill's simple yet ingenious plot and skillful pacing, Heart-Shaped Box is in all ways unremarkable: characters are not memorable (and Jude's girlfriends are even interchangeable), there is no resolution to Jude's backstory, and although the plot is both tense and dense, nothing exists outside of it--the reader is left with nothing meaningful or memorable. I found the horror elements ineffective and was ultimately disappointed in the book; In good conscious I can't recommend it, but readers who find these elements frightening may enjoy the book much more and may want to pick it up.

I found it excruciatingly difficult to write this review--not because the book was too good for words, or because it was too bad to waste my time on, but because I found Heart-Shaped Box is mediocre and unmemorable on all accounts. I appreciate the skill that went into plotting and writing the book, to be sure. The concept is ingenious in its simplicity, and the story has a dense and careful plot. Hill's chapters are short and the tight plot varies ongoing action and backstory at a rate that keeps the reader interested in both. His writing style is far from exceptional, but it is visually-oriented (almost more film than novel) and succinct, putting emphasis on the content of the writing and not the writing itself. All of these aspects are competent and make for a decent story--et for all of them, something about the book is lacking. Jude is styled as an antihero with a dark past--yet he is almost comically "hardcore" and while the reader does receive his backstory, Jude never comes to terms with his own history. He is not the only simplistic character: his girlfriends are so weakly characterized that as the plot progresses, they actually combine into a single entity with interchangeable names--an intentional plot device, granted, it still makes for worrying commentary on characterization.

However, the most disappointing part about the book is that nothing exists outside of it--when the book ends (in a series of too-perfect epilogues) the reader is left with nothing to take away, nothing meaningful outside of the plot. And while I hardly expect a horror book to contain the same depth as I would some other novels, I wish that the book offered something more than its plot. Perhaps I would have found the plot more meaningful in its own right if I had found the horror elements scary, but they were for me ineffective. Whether or not the book is frightening will probably depend on the reader--the horror elements are there, and with Hill's pacing there is adequate buildup and his visual writing style they are rendered in film-like detail. However, they simply didn't appeal to me, and in fact became repetitive--once the horror begins, it continues with almost to break up until the book's climax, all variations on the same theme peppered with moments of gruesome violence. Readers who find the book's horror more effective will no doubt enjoy the book more than I did, and a satisfying scare may tip the otherwise equal balance and make this a successful book.

Hill is a competent writer, and has conceived and plotted a competent book. There are weaknesses: poor characterizations, elements which go unaddressed. But since the horror elements did not interest or scare me, and since there is no greater meaning to the story, Heart-Shaped Box left me empty and disappointed. The book is easy enough to read--with such short chapters and constant movement in the plot, the pages go by swiftly. But once you get to the end, there's nothing there: Jude confronts nothing, all the right characters succeed and/or live, all the right characters fail and/or die (again), the plot wraps up to the expected pat conclusion, and the book ends--without leaving anything behind for the reader, any concepts to mull over, any meaning to take away. And since the book failed to scare or thrill me, and had nothing more meaningful to offer, I came away feeling as though I had wasted my time in reading it. Another reader may find this book scary, they may be able to enjoy it for the thrill ride it intends to be, and that may be enough. But I didn't care for it, and I can't in good conscious recommend it.
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