It’s no small wonder that Joe Hill, son of legendary author Stephen King, decided to adopt a different name with which to publish his writing. Living in the shadow of the “King of Horror” must be intimidating, especially for an author set out to forge his own place in the genre. Hill’s debut novel Heart-Shaped Box offers a refreshing, terrifying look into the supernatural realm and establishes him as a prominent voice in the world of horror literature.
Heart-Shaped Box is primarily about Jude Coyne, a 54-year-old washed-up musician with a penchant for occult memorabilia. He’s a womanizer that uses women less than half his age then sends them packing when he’s done; he never bothers to call them by their actual names, instead referring to them simply by their state of origin. He is impulsive and never takes responsibility for his own actions. Jude blames his abusive father for his calloused nature and proclivity for the dark and perverse. Jude abhors weakness and sensitivity, and there isn’t much that shocks or disgusts him anymore — he made his wealth off the profane and distasteful.
Jude surrounds himself with broken people and feeds off their pain. His current girlfriend Georgia, whose real name is Marybeth Kimball, is a 23-year-old former stripper. Marybeth was sexually abused by her father’s friend at the age of 13, and she attempted to kill herself upon graduating high school. Jude’s personal assistant and only real friend, Danny, is a subservient kiss-ass that Jude often finds annoying and revolting. Danny’s sister over-dosed on Heroine in her teens, which led to his mother committing suicide soon afterwards. Danny was the one that found her body.
One afternoon, Danny comes across an item on the Internet that he’s sure Jude will be interested in: a ghost for sale. The woman selling the ghost, Jessica Price, claims that it is the spirit of her stepfather Craddock McDermott, a nomad and self-proclaimed master hypnotist. Jessica’s 11-year-old daughter was the first to see her grandfather’s specter and describes him as possessing terrifying black scribble marks over his eyes. Jessica claims her stepfather’s spirit is connected to his favorite suit, and he will follow wherever the suit goes. Jude buys it immediately for $1,000, and it later arrives in a black heart-shaped box.
From the moment the suit arrives, it’s obvious that Craddock’s ghost is not benign. Jude and Georgia are tormented by the vengeful wraith in various and gruesome ways. A hypnotist in life, Craddock’s spirit is able to manipulate the living into doing his will by planting his sinister instructions directly into their thoughts. Hill’s depiction of these scenes is impeccable and leaves the reader, just like the characters in the novel, clueless to what is happening until it’s happened.
Despite the ethereal nemesis that can control thoughts and actions, the novel is not entirely about the supernatural. Heart-Shaped Box tracks the progression and evolution of Jude Coyne as he is forced to examine the choices he’s made and how they’ve affected those around him. Jude sees Craddock’s ghost as a representation of his past sins, and he’s forced to face them or be destroyed.
Heart-Shaped Box is an intense ride from beginning to end. Hill’s use of descriptive language sets a tone of absolute terror, transforming even inanimate objects into menacing demons. The plot takes several unexpected twists and turns, always leaving the reader one step behind the truth. Hill effectively paces his disturbing story and builds to a gripping finale: an action-packed and revealing sequence of events that will keep you reading late into the night and leave you afraid to turn off the lights when you’re finished.