Author: Joe Hill
311 pages • £12.99
Three decades ago, a “new” writer emerged on the bookstands, clearly talented but selling modestly until the truth about his identity emerged. The writer was Richard Bachman, alias Stephen King. Joe Hill has had a shorter career than Bachman – this is his first novel, following the awardwinning story collection 20th Century Ghosts – but the cat is already pretty much out of the bag (it was “officially” given away by the film trade paper Variety). So, yes, for anyone who doesn’t know already, Joe Hill was born Joseph Hillstrom King, son of the horror supremo.
It might seem bad form to highlight that fact here, given that the publishers clearly want Hill to be judged on his own terms, but his writing style and storytelling ability here are so uncannily like King’s that it’s impossible not to note. And the first third of Heart-Shaped Box reads like top-drawer King Sr: disturbing, scary, the morbidly guilty forebodings building to a superbly dark crescendo.
Judas Coyne is a semi-retired rock star who’s outlived his band, and now collects macabre curios. When he sees an ostensibly honest-to-goodness ghost for sale on an eBay-style website, his curiosity is piqued enough to make the purchase. Naturally the ghost is real, a quietly terrifying old man who wields a razor-pendulum and is out for revenge on the luckless Judas.
The book boasts instantly interesting, morally compromised protagonists (Judas may have formerly been a satanic rock star, but has the humanity of any ageing has been). There’s an electrifying nocturnal sequence, which involves a snuff film, phone calls from the dead and erotic homicide, and the first part of the book amounts to a fine novella in itself. But the narrative becomes less gripping after the first high, the truly sympathetic characters not compensating for an increasingly generic menace and some pulled punches that dilute the early terror into something that’s merely a good read.