Heart-Shaped Box--Joe Hill


Who is Joe Hill and does it matter?

Rumor has it (and I consider wikipedia a source that is only a step above rumor) that Joe Hill is Joseph Hillstrom King, son of Stephen King. Joe Hill is the name he has taken in order to thrive on his own as a writer--something that was bound to fall through at one time or another. I admire a person who has the courage to engage in writing in the face of the enormous opus and craft of a parent's or a sibling's writing. In this case, Mr. Hill faces both Stephen and Tabitha King and has a brother, Owen King who is also a writer. With odds like these, it would be a hard thing to make one's own way in the world of fiction/literature. The attempt to do so can only be admired.

Synopsis--Or, at Least, as Much as I'm Going to Tell You Here

What is there to say about Mr. Hill's first novel Heart-Shaped Box? A difficult question indeed. The novel centers around an interesting concept--an aging death-metal rocker hears about a ghost for sale on one of the many E-bay clone sites. Given his collections of materials related to the occult and supernatural, he naturally needs to possess this item. Problem is, the person selling it already knows about the Rock Star's interest and is using that interest for purposes that must remain undisclosed. The story evolves out of the purchase of the dead-man's suit which arrives in the heart-shaped box of the title. Ah, but it isn't the only heart-shaped box in the novel and it is the interplay of these heart-shaped boxes that makes for some of the interesting possibility of the novel.

The theme, ultimately, is redemption through love. The love is not divine love (as many people have pointed out is also true for Harry Potter novels); however, all true, unselfish love, even broken human love for another, is a sign of divine love. (As St. John tells us, if we cannot love what we can see and hold, how do we begin to think that we can love what we cannot see and hold.) It is also a novel about learning how to love in the face of the vast indifference and sometimes active hostility of the world at large.

Supernatural Fiction v. Horror Fiction

I suppose Mr. Hill's novel is marketed as "horror." And to some extent that is a real shame. While there are horrific elements to the story, most of these are centered squarely in the realm of the human heart. Yes, there is a vengeful, vindictive, and almost unstoppable ghost out to destroy for his own purposes. But far more frightening are the human agents behind the havoc that the ghost ends up wreaking.

Ghost stories fall into a curious "between-land" of fiction. While the effect of some of them may be horrific, there are a great many in which the element of horror is secondary to the purpose of the story. Most famous among them is that seasonal gem, the literary jewel in the crown of our current festive season. There is nothing particularly horrific in the apparitions or activities of any of the ghosts in A Christmas Carol. So too with Turn of the Screw in which there may or may not be ghosts. And even so with The Haunting of HIll House. While the ghost story may enter the realm of horror at will, it isn't always, nor even necessarily frequently about horror. More often the ghost story is about connections--human connections. The ghost story is supernatural fiction that can touch on strains of true faith and religion. The themes of the ghost story allow one to examine the communion of saints and what that means as well as other aspects of faith, belief, and the supernatural world.

Supernatural fiction, fiction that focuses more on human themes--love, redemption, etc.--is in a sense a superior brand of horror fiction because it has purpose beyond entertainment or shock. There is an end toward which the entertainment pushes. And Mr. Hill's book succeeds on this level admirably.

While there are a number of distressing elements in the book--coarse language (but from coarse characters living a rough life), abuse, and other unpleasant realities that shape some lives, Mr. Hill uses them to good effect. What was most remarkable about the story is that I cared at all for the main character Jude Coyne, who, as we meet him seems nothing more that a superficial, self-obsessed aging death-metal rocker. In the course of the story we discover much about him and learn to like and even love and care about him and the other characters in the novel.

The core of the story is centered around the redemption of Jude Coyne. In some sense, there are parallels to A Christmas Carol in which the visitation of the ghost brings about a deep change in character. Now, the ghost in this novel is considerably more vindictive and destructive than any encountered in A Christmas Carol, but its purpose in the novel and in the life of the character is similar. In the presence of this ghost, Jude comes to realize what love is and how much he has experienced of it and taken it for granted.

While there is no overt mention of God, nor any strong indication of any religious theme, and while one cannot really interpret in any reasonable way the intentions of an author, there is a moment within the book at which one of the characters says that she is not afraid to die because now she knows that it is not the end, that there is something that comes after.

20th Century Ghosts

While Heart-Shaped Box is Joe Hill's first novel, and a compulsively readable one at that, it is not his first fiction. Most of what came before was a series of short stories, some of which are collected in the book 20th Century Ghosts. I've read only the first two stories in this collection, but they show the same aplomb, the same control, the same desire to explore important themes that the novel shows. While following in his father's footsteps, Mr. Hill steps out in ways unique to himself, and the promise of these stories and this first novel make me hope that we can expect a great many more from Mr. Hill.


For those who like ghost stories, malevolent ghosts, and plain, good writing, Mr. Hill has provided a superb novel. The language more controlled than some of his Father's middle works (seems that the elder Mr. King is gradually regaining control over his work that was patently missing from works such as The Tommyknockers). Joe Hill is a person of interest in the field of supernatural fiction.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on December 10, 2007 8:17 AM.

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