Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill


I hate watching horror movies. It has been a long time since I’ve seen one. The last one might have been Ringu, that terrifying Japanese movie that scared the hell out of me and made me stay away from the TV for quite a long time. Yup, it was that long ago (I think I was in university – let’s just say many years ago).

Yet I don’t mind reading horror novels (horror books?).

And I’ve been wondering why. Because the imagination runs wild and conjures up thoughts in my head. Yet it’s still not as horrifying as watching a horror movie.

Perhaps because it lacks an eerie soundtrack?

Is a scary movie still scary if you watch it on mute?

Back to the scary book though.


At the heart (ok couldn’t resist that one) of Joe Hill’s debut is Judas Coyne, an ageing heavy-metal great now somewhat retired and living in Hudson Valley with Georgia, one of the many girls who have rotated through his life, and whom he names by their home state.

“It had been years since he dated anyone with a tan. When you were a Goth, it was important to at least imply the possibility you might burst into flames in direct sunlight.”

Coyne is a collector of things macabre. Like sketches of the Seven Dwarfs drawn by John Wayne Gacy; a skull of a peasant who had been trepanned in the sixteenth century; the 300-year-old confession of a witch.
So when his assistant Danny points him to an online auction of a ghost, he jumps on it without much of a thought.

“‘I will “sell” my stepfather’s ghost to the highest bidder. Of course a soul cannot really be sold, but I believe he will come to your home and abide with you if you put out the welcome mat. As I said, when he died, he was with us temporarily and had no place to call his own, so I am sure he would go to where he was wanted. Do not think this is a stunt or a practical joke and that I will take your money and send you nothing. The winning bidder will have something solid to show for their investment. I will send you his Sunday suit . I believe if his spirit is attached to anything, it has to be that.“‘

Who in their right mind would read that and say, yes, let’s put a bid on it? Well, that’s Judas Coyne for you.

“Maybe he expected an explanation, but Jude wasn’t sure he could’ve explained, even to himself, why it seemed reasonable to pay a thousand dollars for an old suit that probably wasn’t worth a fifth of that. Later he thought it might be good publicity: Judas Coyne buys a poltergeist. The fans ate up stories like that. But that was later. Right then, in the moment, he just knew he wanted to be the one who bought the ghost.”

But it turns out to be the biggest mistake of his life. Because there is indeed a ghost. An old man who at first lurks around the house, scaring the dogs, causing sleepless nights with his presence and his scribbled-out eyes. Ugh. I can’t even write that without feeling a little chill down my neck!

But then people start dying, and Judas and Georgia go off in search of the woman who sold him the suit – the sister of one of Judas’ ex-girlfriends.



And here I have to admit that Hill is very adept at drumming up the chills. He sets a very creepy beginning to the story. The kind that requires reading in bright light. And I mean bright sunlight. Not the bright light of a reading lamp where shadows still lurk beyond.

But later as the book turns into more of a revenge plot, the scare factor disappears and turns into more of a violent, physical terror. That is, it becomes less about the uneasiness of the unknown (and that creepy spine-chilling feeling it brings) and more about the mundanities of staying alive. Sure, we get to know Judas – and Georgia – better, and we learn their childhoods were of abuse and sadness, drawing them perhaps to this sort of music? But unfortunately, they are not really very likable characters. And so it occasionally makes me put down this book and reconsider reading further.

Hill does manage to salvage things by making the revenge plot a bit less straightforward than it initially seems. I’m not going to spoil it further so let’s just leave it at that.

So all in, a pretty decent RIP read.

I like when Hill talks about music:

“A lot of his songs, when they started out, sounded like old music. They arrived on his doorstep, wandering orphans, the lost children of large and venerable musical families. They came to him in the form of Tin Pan Alley sing-alongs, honky-tonk blues, Dust Bowl plaints, lost Chuck Berry riffs. Jude dressed them in black and taught them to scream.”

“All the world is made of music. We are all strings on a lyre. We resonate. We sing together.”

Joseph Hillstrom King, better known by the pen name Joe Hill, is an American author and comic book writer. He has published three novels—Heart-Shaped Box, Horns and NOS4A2—and a collection of short stories titled 20th Century Ghosts. He is also the author of the comic book series Locke & Key. Hill’s parents are authors Stephen and Tabitha King.


This is my second read for RIP VIII


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