Writing about Reading: Heart-Shaped Box

August 5, 2012 § 2 Comments

If it comes to pass that the world really does end in December, I think I’ll be okay with it because I’ll have read so many awesome books by then. I’ve had a good run lately, and Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box is the most recent addition to a list of really fantastic novels.

I’m not a horror fan. I’ve read a few of Stephen King’s novels (The Stand, Cujo, Christine, The Eyes of the Dragon) and while they didn’t really scare me, I found I just didn’t care for them. I think the scariest book I’ve read is Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs (which I did find quite scary). I avoid most horror movies, and have no interest in slasher flicks nor torture porn. Part of the reason is that I tend to internalize the books I read and the movies I watch, and horror stories just aren’t something I want inside my head. Mostly, though, they just aren’t my cuppa.

So when my beautiful wife—who very much is a horror fan—told me I should read Heart-Shaped Box, I resisted. She told me that it wasn’t really horror, not really. She told me it was very good. But it wasn’t until she started telling me some of the things Joe Hill tweeted—his jokes, his golden nuggets about writing—that I started getting interested. I began following him on Twitter myself, found his humor ran much in the same vein as mine, and found his writing advice to be thought-provoking and solid. I became interested in the author, in other words, and that made me curious about the kinds of stories he wrote.

Like some kind of literary pusher, my wife offered me a taste—two of Hill’s short stories from his collection called 20th Century Ghosts. I read the wildly original (not a phrase I use much these days) “Pop Art,” and I read “The Cape.” I enjoyed them both, and willingly took the needle from my loving wife and shoved it deep into the vein when I opened the cover of Heart-Shaped Box.

And I found out my beautiful, loving wife—whom I would trust with my life—was a goddamn liar.

The first 100 or so pages of the book are definitely horror. Creepy as hell, the stuff nightmares are made of. I didn’t think I could finish it. I thought I wouldn’t sleep well the entire time I was reading it. And that first night, I really didn’t sleep well. But I was hooked, and I wanted to see how the story would end.

After that first 100 pages, I discovered that the book really wasn’t that scary. It was still tense, don’t get me wrong. It kept me up way too late for several nights because I just couldn’t stand not knowing what happened next. But that’s the kind of story I love.

What took me by surprise, however, was—well, several things. For one thing, Hill’s writing style reminds me of Elmore Leonard’s. It’s tight and lean, and the characters are unique enough that even if there were no attributions or hints about who was speaking, you’d still know because each character has a recognizable voice. That’s a tough trick to pull off, and Hill does it well.

Another thing that surprised me was the story under the ghost story—the real story, if you will. Yes, it’s about a guy trying to get rid of a dead guy, but it’s also about a metaphorically dead guy coming back to life. About becoming a human being again.

And honestly, it surprised me that I liked it as much as I did. I didn’t expect to. I expected it to be, at best, okay. Passable, but not great. But it is great, and I loved it with the same kind of unexpected joy I felt when I first read Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim. Come to think of it, Judas Coyne and James Stark would probably get along pretty well. If you liked Sandman Slim, you should definitely read Heart-Shaped Box. And vice versa.

I’ll be reading the rest of 20th Century Ghosts, and then Horns, and then whatever else I can find by Joe Hill. I’ve found a new author to add to my favorites, and for that (and many, many other things) I owe a debt of gratitude to my wonderful wife.

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§ 2 Responses to Writing about Reading: Heart-Shaped Box

  • cmsaunders says:

    Good review! Heart-Shaped Box is certainly a great book. Right now I am nearing the end of Horns, which I can also recommend. I was wondering… do you see similarities in his writing style to that of Stephen King?

    • Thank you! Horns is on the list, for sure. As for similarities, as I said I don’t read King, and the books I mentioned I read decades ago, so I can’t really compare King’s style to his son’s. I’m sure there are similarities, though; at the very least, King had to have influenced Hill a bit.

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