Review: Heart-Shaped Box

3 stars
A fast and violent story that won't scare you out of your wits

I read my first Stephen King book when I was a teenager, and I remain one of his constant readers decades later. He’s incredibly prolific, but he won’t live forever (unless he’s made some kind of special arrangement). Who will I turn to then in order to fill the King-shaped void in my life? Perhaps Joe Hill, AKA Joseph Hillström King.

King shortened his middle name to create his nom de plume so people wouldn’t do what I’m doing: pay attention to his work because of his father’s. By now that ship has sailed, and comparisons are inevitable the moment you look at Hill’s photo on a book jacket. Joe Hill has followed in his father’s footsteps as a horror author, but he’s also explored new territory as the writer of Locke & Key, a graphic novel adapted into a TV series.

Heart-Shaped Box (2007) was Hill’s debut novel. Named after the Nirvana song, it’s about the haunting of a washed-up rock star named Judas Coyne by a ghost he buys on the Internet. The book wastes little time with questions or preliminaries. Soon, Coyne and his hot, young goth girlfriend (the latest of many) are on the run for their lives, from an entity that seems capable of anything and impossible to defeat.

Each chapter is named after a famous rock song, and Hill’s story is loud, fast, violent, engaging and—not especially scary. Coyne is not a likable main character, nor is he easily scared; the stakes are mostly limited to the survival of him and the people around him; the ghost is creepy but all too familiar and human in its evil.

That doesn’t make Heart-Shaped Box a bad story; I enjoyed my time with it, and finished it in a few days. But as far as horror goes, it lacks the menacing quality of the best works of the genre; it never plants an idea in your head that comes back when you’re alone in the house and it’s after midnight. 3.5 stars, rounded down because I’m hoping Hill’s later works will pack more of a punch.