Joe Hill, Heart-Shaped Box. Gollancz, 2007. Pp. 384. ISBN 0575079126. £12.99.

Reviewed by The Exploding Boy

I approached this title with a great deal of enthusiasm. As an aficionado of genre fiction, there is little more thrilling than the appearance of a new, highly praised horror novel from a first time author. Such enthusiasm is easily understood, especially when said novel is lauded as "the best debut horror novel since Clive Barker's The Damnation Game," a benchmark novel that launched Mr Barker's glittering career over twenty years ago.

Big surprise then, following this monumental praise from genre stalwart Neil Gaiman, that once one reads Heart-Shaped Box, one might not only feel cheated by the overstated eulogy, but also wonder whether Mr Gaiman has actually read any other debut horror novels from the past twenty years. One thing is certain, those who do know their stuff will surely think that comparisons to The Damnation Game are utterly misplaced.

Ok, so Heart-Shaped Box starts well. There's an exciting air to the opening part of the novel, some genuine chills and a seemingly original premise—a ghost for sale over the internet. The writing has an undeniable energy to it, and the ride itself is initially gripping. However, as the story moves forward into what I can only describe as `Koontz territory'—a spectral car chase across North America—the wilful plot-twisting eventually unravels into a central premise that simply doesn't hold water. The build up is strong and intriguing, agreed; the payoff as weak as communion wafers.

Too much here is left unexplained, and the plot does not support deeper analysis. Joe Hill writes in such a fashion that it's almost as if he expects the relentless action to cover the tracks of a dreadfully flimsy concept. The reader will be left wondering why the villainous protagonists—Craddock and Jessica—would have gone to all the trouble in the first place, not to mention how—an omission that becomes extremely irritating to say the least. The potential deeper levels of the story are left painfully unexplored, as though the author himself has overlooked them, leaving a tale that can easily be dissected and then debunked by more critical minds.

Heart-Shaped Box is a ghost story, true, but the best thing about good genre fiction is that it seeks to make the unbelievable somehow believable, and regretfully, this novel doesn't come close to achieving that. Ultimately, this sad fact lets the whole show down. After the smoke clears, what remains is a dreadfully shallow tale that reads like a hastily scrawled horror movie screenplay—one of the endless straight-to-video efforts that already haunt the shelves of your local rental store. Examine the plot at your peril.

And then there comes the final kicker. Joe Hill is none other than horror maestro Stephen King's son, a fact that was apparently an 'industry secret' for eight years, unknown even to Hill's literary agent… ahem, forgive my scepticism.

This knowledge might even have been a selling point, but one must speculate whether, left to the publisher's slush pile, without the supposed benefit of nepotism, Heart-Shaped Box would ever have seen the light of day. In fact, whole tracts of the novel read exactly like Stephen King, from the `voices of the dead' on the TV and radio, to the George Stark ruthlessness (see The Dark Half, Stephen King) of the novel's main baddie, the ghoulish Craddock.

In the end, Joe Hill has written a horror novel as though he has only ever read his father's works, and the result is anything but original. Dress it up how you like, the Gothic rock star chic and the timely mention of eBay, Hill has produced a novel as cynically soulless as his unconvincingly revenant ghosts. As a result, other, more worthy genre debuts from less well-placed authors will presumably stay buried under the overblown hype of Heart-Shaped Box, and that is the real horror.

Harsh? Perhaps. Yet this reader found that Heart-Shaped Box left him chilled to the bone—and for all the wrong reasons.

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