Heart-Shaped Box: The best kind of scary pleasure

Joe Hill Heart-Shaped BoxJoe Hill Heart-Shaped BoxHeart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

Joe Hill is the most promising new horror writer on the horizon. His first book, a collection of short stories called 20th Century Ghosts. It was a revelation: quirky, brilliant and scary. I gave it a rave review when I first read it, and I still return to those stories every now and then just to take pleasure in seeing how Hill pulls it off.

Joe Hill’s first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, fulfills the promise of those short stories. It contains enough change-ups, chases, oddities and horrific images to keep any seasoned horror reader in goosebumps. Far more accomplished than most first novels, Heart-Shaped Box is the best kind of scary pleasure.

Hill’s hero — or his antihero, depending on how you look at it — is Judas Coyne, an aging death-metal rocker. He has modeled himself around his stage persona, it seems, posing as a foul-mouthed son of a bitch who takes advantage of the pretty and totally messed-up young women who are attracted to his music. Just to add some spice, he has the repulsive hobby of collecting grotesqueries: the skull of a peasant who had been trepanned in the sixteenth century to let demons out, a noose used to hang a man in the nineteenth century, even a genuine snuff film. His hobby makes him the perfect mark when an email from an auction site offers a ghost for sale. He immediately snatches it up, without a thought as to what owning a ghost would actually mean. But then, he assumes it’s really nothing more than a dead man’s suit with an odd reputation.

Jude is surprised, then, to find that the idea of donning the suit, or seeing his live-in Goth girl (called Georgia because that’s the state she’s from) in it, deeply repulses him. He’s taken aback at his own disgust, as he’s made a living out of the disgusting for 30 years. But revulsion is only the beginning.

It turns out that Jude really has bought a ghost. A real, live, dead ghost. And the ghost is malevolent, seeking revenge for the death of someone Jude once knew. That someone loved him, and he rejected her, and the ghost is angry. Soon Jude is running for his life, trying to outrun the ghost by tracking it to its source, while he and Georgia accumulate both physical and psychic injuries. And he’s running, too, from his own childhood, his own adulthood, his own sins. The tale begins to twist under one’s eyes like a snake, shiny and dangerous, very possibly sufficient to keep the reader awake at night. Or at least until the last page is turned.

Heart-Shaped Box does not contain much of the wild experimentation and newness that characterized 20th Century Ghosts. This is not a fault in the novel, however. To the contrary, it is refreshing to read a good, solid ghost story. It is thrilling to follow this rollercoaster, one with unexpected drops and odd, wild turns. The writing is crisp and clean, the characters sharply delineated. Clear your calendar for a day to read this one — and do so with the lights on.

I should note what is now an open secret: Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King. I only mention this to say that Hill is not King, but his own man. While one can see the influence of the father on the son, it is no more than one would expect King to have had on any writer entering the horror field after growing up on King’s novels. This book is entirely Joe Hill’s. And it’s good.

Heart-Shaped Box — (2007) Publisher: Judas Coyne is a collector of the macabre: a cookbook for cannibals… a used hangman’s noose… a snuff film. An aging death-metal rock god, his taste for the unnatural is as widely known to his legions of fans as the notorious excesses of his youth. But nothing he possesses is as unlikely or as dreadful as his latest discovery, an item for sale on the Internet, a thing so terribly strange, Jude can’t help but reach for his wallet. I will “sell” my stepfather’s ghost to the highest bidder… For a thousand dollars, Jude will become the proud owner of a dead man’s suit, said to be haunted by a restless spirit. He isn’t afraid. He has spent a lifetime coping with ghosts — of an abusive father, of the lovers he callously abandoned, of the bandmates he betrayed. What’s one more? But what UPS delivers to his door in a black heart-shaped box is no imaginary or metaphorical ghost, no benign conversation piece. It’s the real thing. And suddenly the suit’s previous owner is everywhere: behind the bedroom door… seated in Jude’s restored vintage Mustang… standing outside his window… staring out from his widescreen TV. Waiting — with a gleaming razor blade on a chain dangling from one bony hand… A multiple-award winner for his short fiction, author Joe Hill immediately vaults into the top echelon of dark fantasists with a blood-chilling roller-coaster ride of a novel, a masterwork brimming with relentless thrills and acid terror.

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TERRY WEYNA is spending the second half of her life as a reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, after having spent the first half practicing law in a variety of states and settings. (She still does legal research and writing for a law firm in California). Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor and writer Fred White, the imperious Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a personal library that exceeds 12,000 volumes.

View all posts by Terry Weyna


  1. I heard an interview with Joe Hill a year or so ago on Book Radio of Sirius/XM satellite radio. It was a very interesting interview and this book sound very intriguing.
    Nice review.

  2. Thanks, Greg. I actually thought 20th Century Ghosts — his collection of short stories — was even better. Like his father, I prefer his work at shorter length! Oh, and his graphic novel, Locke & Key, is quite good, too.

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