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Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780575081864
Date: 01 May 2008 List Price £6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

The UK mass market edition of Joe Hill's extraordinary début novel Heart-Shaped Box a novel that has almost single-handedly reinvigorated modern horror (certainly in terms of making it cool!) and that furthermore shows us that the apple really doesn't fall far from the tree... er... by which obscure remark I mean to say that Hill is as damn good a writer as his ole' man, Stephen King.

We're rerunning my review of the original Gollancz release.

A while ago in my review of James Herbert's risible The Secret of Crickley Hall, I was bemoaning the stagnant state of the horror scene over here in the UK. Spooky stories are a tired and neglected area of genre fiction. Bookstores only seem to stock Koontz and King reprints and hard cover releases seem restricted to Harris and Herbert. I refer specifically to the longer form in this exaggerated observation. Conversely, if not paradoxically, short horror fiction seems a booming market -- thanks to the efforts of our small and medium presses and other fringe publishers, there is a lot of really excellent and exciting work to be found out there. In spite of this, it seems something special is needed to get the main genre publishers to stick their necks out and offer something that will reinvigorate the entire scene and show the book trade that there are readers out there just waiting to crap themselves! So, has this holy grail of horror been discovered at last? Very possibly – and it comes in a heart-shaped box.

Heart-Shaped Box is the quite brilliant debut novel from Joe Hill, a young American writer with something of an interesting pedigree – and I refer very deliberately and specifically to his fiction. Hill's short stories have been popping up over the past few years in a number of fringe venues frequented by horror aficionados. Appearances in a number of higher profile anthologies have led to more recent stories coming out in better known magazines – Postscripts, Subterranean, TTA. However his breakout work was a collection of all this short fiction published by Peter Crowther's PS Publishing. 20th Century Ghosts made a big, big noise when it was released a year or so ago, and is has gone on to win a number of major awards including the International Horror Guild Award, The British Fantasy Award and the William L. Crawford Award. Not a bad clutch for a first book –- and I've not even mentioned the nominations it received for many other prizes.

With such a meteoric rise, it is not surprising that publishers have been waiting eagerly for Hill's first full length work. Heart-Shaped Box is published in the US by Morrow with a massive fanfare (they are touting it as the publishing event of the year!) and the UK edition follows from Gollancz in early March (and has a far more impressive cover!). Rights have been sold to over a dozen other countries, film rights have gone to Warner Bros. –- all in all, it is the kind of exposure that all first time novelists dream about. So, does Heart-Shaped Box merit such attention? And is Joe Hill the man to breathe life into the fiction of death? Should you buy his book? Yes, yes, and thrice yes. Here's why…

Judas Coyne is an aged rock star with a bad attitude and too much money. His career is now largely in the past and he has pretty much everything he wants –- and most of that is unsavoury. He has a penchant for the bizarre. His private collection includes such delicacies as a cookbook for cannibals and a genuine snuff movie and so when his aide tells him that there is ghost for sale on the Internet, Coyne snaps it up before anyone else can bid on it. Big mistake. When our rational instincts are to assume that such an eBay auction would obviously be for a fake item, Hill promptly prohibits us having such thoughts. The second Judas hits the buy-it-now key, it's as if a deep and dramatic chord has sounded -- a Faustian pact has been made that will compel us to turn those pages right to the end of the book.

The ghost arrives courtesy of UPS in the form of a crumpled suit in a heart—shaped box. Not very ghostly at all, and rich man Judas forgets about his new toy almost immediately. He'd rather go walk his dogs or be sour towards his latest groupie girlfriend –- the latter a pattern that repeatedly drives his lovers away. Judas is man incapable of real attachment, preferring remoteness to any sort of emotional reliance on others. Hill offers explanation for this trait via some windows into our man's past and in doing so fills out his protagonist with a steady and practised hand. In spite of his numerous negative qualities, Coyne remains redeemable and sympathetic. It's a brilliant piece of characterization.

It is ironic then that this man who so fears attachment should become prey to something that simply will not leave him alone. The ghost is no random spirit, but instead a highly original weapon of revenge set upon him by the sister of an ex-girlfriend in the form of their recently deceased step-father, a southerner who –- when alive –- took a no-nonsense approach to his work. He was also a mean son-of-a-bitch and neither characteristic has been dispelled by his death and so the ghost sets about his task with relentless relish and gusto.

Joe Hill designs and builds the tension of his story like a master craftsman. What is so impressive is the focus of this piece. It it put together with laser-like precision, all the more remarkable because of the restrictions Hill sets out for himself. It's the same kind of genius Spielberg employed in Duel (from a short story by Richard Matheson which, alas, I have not read) –- in which there are two basic elements to the story -- the antagonist and the protagonist. The story is essentially a case of one chasing the other and the eventual result is never really in question. Having created this narrow set-up, there's not much room for manoeuvre outside of a straight line, yet Hill (as did Spielberg) delivers a story that never stops moving. It rumbles onwards unceasingly, with scarcely a single pause for breath, all the while gathering pace toward an inevitable and spectacular final showdown.

Heart-Shaped Box is a horror novel that is scary within ten pages. It takes no time at all to get going after which it holds you in its jaws and doesn't let you go. The sense of threat in this novel is constant and ever increasing –- there is never any doubt that our man Judas can be seriously harmed by this bastard of a ghost and so as the story goes on and danger grows and grows until it develops that vivid and clammy cold-sweat quality of the worst kind of night terrors. Additionally the dialogue throughout is sharp as razor blade, often adding a refreshing refrain from the otherwise oppressive atmosphere. A brilliantly pitched novel that marks the debut of a major contributor to the field.

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