Hill’s debut scarily good

2 Apr

This originally ran in the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in 2007.

BY SHEENA BARNETT

With his debut novel, “Heart-Shaped Box,” Joe Hill takes readers on a zooming thrill ride that will leave them shivering and peeing in their pants from fright.
Sound familiar? It should. Hill learned from the best – his father, horror master Stephen King – and he uses what he learned well.
“Heart-Shaped Box” follows Jude, an ex-metal rocker (imagine Metallica’s James Hetfield in about 10  years) who buys a guy’s soul off the Internet to add to his already grisly collection of snuff films and used nooses.

Of course, buying someone’s soul can never end well.  The soul doesn’t belong to just anyone – it happens to be the spirit of Craddock, stepdad to Jude’s former flame Florida, who supposedly killed herself.  Craddock and Florida’s family blame Jude for her suicide, so he comes to seek revenge on the rock star.
The best thing about “Heart-Shaped Box” is its reality, despite the supernatural plot.
Jude, Florida and his current love, Georgia, are all incredibly real characters, so their actions feel natural.  Hill knows metalheads and Goth girls so well you almost wonder if he’s moonlighted as a rock star.
Hill’s story is very visual, and he’s excellent at description.
Two particularly creepy scenes – one taking place at a diner and another surrounding an Ouija board – will remain fresh in readers’ minds long after the book is finished.
Upon first impression, Craddock’s description seemed a little stereotypical – what contemporary ghost DOESN’T have scribbly lines over his eyes? – but Hill digs deeper than that: “It was as if a child had taken a Magic Marker – a truly magic marker, one that could draw right on the air – and had desperately tried to ink over them. The black lines squirmed and tangled among one another, worms tied into a knot.”
Hill’s descrpitions should help Warner Bros., who bought the film rights to the book six months before it was released.
In every horror story, there is, of course, violence, but Hill doesn’t use it gratuitously.  He manages to tell a scary and violent story, but the scares and violence aren’t there for the sake of their presence.  Hill stays tightly on track and each event lays groundwork for what’s coming.
The story is told pretty rapidly, so a lot happens, but it never feels too rushed or confusing.
Rock ‘n’ roll fans will appreciate Hill’s many rock references that are sprinkled throughout the novel.  For example, the book’s title shares its name with a Nirvana song, Jude names his dogs after legendary lead-singer-and-guitarist teams and sections of the book are named after great rock songs like “Black Dog” and “Hurt.”
All in all, the book is a terrific, goosebump-inducing journey.  There’s no doubt Hill made his daddy proud.

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