Find my full review over at Casual Debris.
Heart-Shaped Box should have been a novella.
Joe Hill’s debut novel deals with Jude Coyne, a self-interested burnt-out rock star who purchases a ghost off the internet. This transaction results in a series of events that forces Coyne to take responsibility for some past actions, and allows him the opportunity to escape his rut and build a foundation for a strong future. Hill tries to build a character-heavy horror novel, but the result is uneven, as ghost story and character examination often exist on separate planes, never truly fusing into a single, solid work.
Beginning as an interesting horror mystery, the novel soon turns into a road trip as dreary as its dusty landscape. Along with two guardian dogs, Jude and his lover, former stripper Marybeth, drive to each of their respective childhood homes to put to rest both figurative and actual ghosts from the past. (With bought ghost in pursuit, though most of the time you wouldn’t know it.)
Not much is achieved at Marybeth’s grandmother’s home, just a lost little girl and a tiresome Ouija board. Excitement abounds, however, when the group arrives at the former home of their ghost pursuer, when once again we have a horror thriller on our hands. The real disappointment comes at the end of the road, the arrival at Jude’s old homestead. What begins as a promising sequence with a strong character in Arlene Wade, Jude’s dad’s nurse, and a sickly and dying father who may or may not see and speak, ends up as a weak denouement for the novel as a whole. Hill had a great opportunity to achieve something of a study of Jude’s character in relation to his estranged father, but sadly all form of reunion is avoided. I wouldn’t want nor expect a heart-felt moment of forgiveness, not remotely possible for these two characters, but I would like something to happen between the two, some element of conflict, especially since this is supposed to be a mainstream horror novel driven by character. What better horror than to be forced to confront the father you've been running from all your life, and what a great contrast Hill could have built between disposed father and purchased ghost? But as I mention above, once the horror enters the pages, notions of character are flung aside, and since we are nearing page three hundred and fifty, what better time to have a climax than now?
Joe Hill evidently struggled with this book. There is a long list of names he feels he must thank at the end, people who have read various drafts in order to help the work along, and perhaps the novel suffer from too much feedback and input; too many cooks in the writer's kitchen (not to mention a few sous-chefs and some big dude with a deep fryer). Hill does at times come across as lacking confidence. He has the unfortunate habit of over-explaining characters’ motives rather than allowing the reader to gather that information through characterization, action, dialogue and all those other writerly tropes. This occurs frequently at the beginning of the novel, and once glaringly at the end, when Jude charitably slips some money into someone’s backpack. Since I included the adverb “charitably” I do not need to expand by adding a phrase at the end of that sentence for clarification, something along the lines of "in order to help her out because she was struggling and he sympathized with her unfortunate situation." Jude Coyne can’t seem to lift a hand without some narratorial comment which should have been stricken.