Monday, October 8, 2012

Dead Men's Tales: A Book Review on Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

Judas Coyne has collected various macabre items over the years but nothing tops his latest item, a dead man's suit with its supposed owner still attached. Intrigued by the idea of owning his own ghost, Judas pays the money and receives the black suit later on by delivery in a heart-shaped box. Thinking nothing of it, he shoves the box and its suit into the back of his closet, believing that none of it is real until the visions start. Visions of an old man wearing the same black suit. Because the ghost is real, appearing in the dark of night, swinging a chain with a razor attached at the end, and he's watching Jude's every move.

I felt the need to read something spooky to celebrate the autumn season and Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box seemed the right amount of creep to go hand in hand with the new cold weather outside. I'd actually heard first about his second novel from my sister, so when I found the debut at a half-price bookstore I decided to give it a go. The premise sounded interesting and the reviews were varied enough that it seemed a safe enough bet to try out. No, I did not know the true background of Joe Hill and in a way, I'm glad I didn't have all the details about the author, as it allowed for a more generous set of expectations when I started reading this book yesterday. More on that at the end of the review.

The writing is very straight to the point, sometimes crude, other times not. It's separated into a series of four segments and follows the story of Judas Coyne, an aging rock-star whose taste for the repulsive has no limits. There is some gore, most true horror novels can't avoid that, but Hill has a lighter touch, a less is more kind of approach that allows for the reader to be creeped out by the things hidden in the dark and the sound of stairs creaking at night rather than going for all-out attempts of freaky descriptions of monsters and ghosts. The first 150 pages of this book flew by fast, with the arrival of the ghost and the consequences attached to this particular being. I like books with a good opening. If you can't get through the first 50 pages, the book's a goner.

On to the idea of ghosts, Hill's take on the world of the dead was a new one for me. I don't know if it's been done before, I haven't read a lot of horror books in recent years, but this was good. I found it interesting, the logistics given in this book world about hauntings and the descriptions of the ghosts and their various actions in an everyday world. The backstory here was given just enough as food for thought but I do wish there had been a few more ghosts hanging around. There was a lot of potential there that was left sitting on the back burner, and as the book reached the halfway point, the ghosts aspect just kind of stalled while the lively ones started making headway and that was unfortunate.

I've read complaints on the characters and in some ways I agree, Jude and his girlfriend Georgia, are not a very likable pair. The first few pages detail Jude's extreme dislike for what he calls his suck-up assistant and talks about how he tries to avoid the poor guy, and then there's Georgia, who seems too self-absorbed to make an impact on the reader or to seem important to Jude. But as the story continues and the ghost starts to take a more complete form in the story, both characters come to an even footing. The stakes are raised, the consequences are set, and they both start to have some true conviction to color their actions. I liked Georgia best by the end, though. No offense to Jude, but I thought she stood with the most to lose and she just kept soldiering on in spite of her fear, so I respected her for that.

On to the creeps of this book, I have to tip my hat to the villains here. There is some squicky business to the dead man's suit that while I somewhat saw these twists coming as I read the story, it still gave me gags and chills to read. However, as the book went on I found the main ghost to be just a bit, well, boring maybe, or I guess hackneyed is a better word. As the plot starts to reveal the true machinations behind the villain I kept thinking there would be more oomph but the ghost just seemed to start repeating itself. By the time it made it to the more climactic battle, I just thought to the ghost, "give it up already, we know the truth about you, how deluded can you be?" It seemed the ghost became more of a tool than anything else, unfortunate and a bit MEH to me after it's interesting beginning.

By the time the story finished, I liked it well enough but it seemed that the ending was a little too cut and dry, too tied up in a perfect bow. I don't remember much about how good horror stories are supposed to end but I don't think the book had the right punch to make it memorable. I liked the beginning, that gave me a slight case of the jitters, but I didn't get the same chills as the book wound down. It's good writing, a unique plot idea, and respectable in mostly every area. It just didn't resonate with me when it was over. Like some readers have said, it scares some people but then it doesn't scare others.

Rating: 6 Stars

As a debut, I do respect the effort made by Joe Hill and the premises for his other works seem interesting enough to ensure that I'll read them when I get the chance. As for the more on this later bit from earlier on in the review, the fact of the matter is that Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King. And even though I'd read up on Joe Hill to research about his works in print, I somehow managed to skip over this fact until after I'd finished reading the book. Why does this matter? I own a lot of Stephen King books. I spent my freshman year of high school reading one after the other after the other. However, it was better for me to read this book without that in the back of my mind as it allowed for me to judge Hill based on his book and not the fact that his dad wrote some the best novels that managed to scare me as a kid.

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