Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (narrated by Stephen Lang)

As a huge Stephen King fan, my first exposure to his son Joe Hill was via their collaborative short story, In the Tall Grass. Let me tell you, that story is messed up. Even by King standards, it has a visceral, lingering quality that has never fully left me. Late last year, Audible offered a free download of Hill’s Locke & Key, which I enjoyed much more than I expected to (there’s just something about a freebie that makes the quality seem dubious – or perhaps I’m too cynical!). So, both things considered, I decided to finally dip into Hill’s debut novel.

Heart-Shaped Box is the story of aging rocker Judas Coyne, whose fascination with the macabre leads him to purchase a ghost on the internet. Trouble is, this isn’t any old ghost, but the step-daddy of a former girlfriend he used up and tossed out, leading to her suicide. And wouldn’t you just know it, old man McDermott doesn’t have the best of intentions for Jude.

I’m developing a theory that the best time to listen to horror stories is when you’re sick as hell. There’s a lowering of resistance and suspension of disbelief that goes hand in hand with cowering under a duvet, shivering through a fever. I was a picture of good health when I started the story, and while I definitely enjoyed its beginnings, I didn’t find it particularly scary. But by the time I finished, I was wiped out with flu, and had to turn the damn lights on just to make sure there were no ghosts with black scribbles for eyes lurking nearby.

The element I was most impressed with was the character development Jude underwent through the course of the book. When we first meet him, he’s selfish and self-centered, a womaniser with only his own best interests at heart. Sufficed to say, I wouldn’t have been too bothered if that mean old ghost had done him a mischief. But over the course of the story, Jude grows. My favourite character was his initially neglected girlfriend Marybeth, and the way their relationship unfolded really served as an anchoring point to root for.

I’m sure I’ll read more by Hill in future, and to say that Heart-Shaped Box was his debut novel, I have high hopes for things to come.

[Read from 8-17 Mar 2016]

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