Literary Inspiration: Heart-Shaped Box

Heart-Shaped Box Collage

You’re a child of the 1990s if you can’t read that title without thinking about Nirvana, but here at least I’m talking about the novel Heart-Shaped Box, a ghost story penned by author Joe Hill.  Hill is actually the nom de plume adopted by Joseph Hillstrom King, son of Stephen.  You probably have heard of him; think he’s written at least one or two things over the years. 😉

Heart-Shaped Box satisfies the “found fortune” requirement of my friend Julie’s reading challenge; I plucked this dog-eared paperback off the shelf of my building’s community “library” (AKA The Dumping Grounds of Grisham, Connelly, Steele, Grafton and Patterson.) That another person in my building, where the average age is about 75, read this rough-and-tumble, punk rock story about an aging rocker fleeing the ghosts of his past is nothing short of amazing to me – I thought all literature in this place began and ended with well-worn copies of Judith Krantz’s Scruples flopping open to the raunchily vanilla sex scenes.

Right, so the deets.  Wealthy, semi-retired, not-quite-washed-up goth rocker Judas Coyne purchases a haunted suit off an online auction site as a lark.  And a lark is all it is; Judas doesn’t actually buy into the goth trappings of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle that has made him a household name.  But something about owning a vintage, possibly ghost-inhabited suit speaks to both the darker AND lighter parts of his soul, and he happily places a bid.

When the suit shows up, neatly folded in a black, heart-shaped candy box, but reeking of the grave and stuck through with sharp, invisible sewing pins (one of which badly pricks his girlfriend’s thumb) the bloom is off the rose.  Judas orders the suit from his sight, but as these things go, bad things never stay down for long, do they?  And the suit is a very bad thing, indeed, as was its previous owner, a sadistic hypnotist who blames Judas for driving his step-daughter – one of the rocker’s many ex-paramours – to suicide.

Heart-Shaped Box Fingers

What follows is a hybrid of the “haunted” novel –  haunted house, haunted road, haunted past, haunted soul – as Judas, his lady Georgia and their two dogs, Angus and Bon, hit the road in a desperate attempt to shake the vengeful ghost nipping at their heels (and hands; Heart-Shaped Box is nothing if not a story preoccupied with brutal, disfiguring hand injuries.  It’s really one of the odder literary quirks I’ve ever encountered.)

To that end, while reading this book, I tried very hard not to fall into the trap of comparing Hill’s work to that of his father’s – it’s an unfair comparison, and one I’ve no doubt he’s been subject to his entire life.  But I’m incredibly familiar with his father’s literary quirks (the graciously grumpy old-timer delivering reams of folksy dialogue, the prescient 12-year-old as a stand-in for the author’s younger self, an aggravating tendency to telegraph major character deaths hundreds of pages in advance) and for the most part, Hill avoids them. His writing is smoother than dear old dad’s, for one thing, the story paying out in an easy, lyrical, constantly-moving fashion. His characters are also more surefooted than his father’s – in King’s novels, when the going gets tough, the tough go insane.  But in Heart-Shaped Box, when confronted with the things that go bump in the night, Hill’s characters just accept it – “Turns out ghosts are real.  Now what are we going to do about it?” It’s refreshingly proactive.

But those rough bits of literary grit are what make King’s novels so beloved in the first place – the perfect imperfectness of the truly weird and wonderful.  Hill deals in a similar sort of marketplace, but it’s a tidy, sanitized one as compared to his father’s junk store of the mind.  Which makes for a really well-written story that clips along like a house on fire, but also lacks any real permanence – once I return Heart-Shaped Box to the solarium library, I probably won’t ever seek it out again.

This tie-in manicure hits all of Heart-Shaped Box’s broader themes – blood, leather and rock ‘n’ roll (especially the leather, here Nails Inc.’s Leather Effect in Noho, a cool textured polish.)

Heart-Shaped Box Collage Bottle

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4 thoughts on “Literary Inspiration: Heart-Shaped Box

  1. Hey, well done on the m-f’in review. You tore this up, then down, but I get it. The senior King is too much of an oddball to write a safe streamlined story, though I’ve read 1 or 2 he may have phoned in. Still, he’s an original, genre-defining author. I feel for Joe, I mean, I don’t think I’d take on that mantle, but more power to him. His novel, The Fireman, is on my tbr. I’d warn anyone but my worst enemy away from Tabitha King’s novel, The Trap, however. Read it years ago and still bitter over the hours of my life I’ll never get back.😈
    Also, I place around 2,000+ holds a month (manually) for the bestseller fiction for my library system, lucky me, anyway July was the first month James Patterson didn’t have a book advance, he has an ungodly amount of holds. I almost did a cartwheel of joy! Who reads that crap? Oh, right, everybody.
    This mani is very artistic, I love your bookish nail inspiration.

    • Thank you, Jay! Although I’m not sure how much I tore ‘er up – it really didn’t make enough of an impression on me to shred it to bits. Although that might be even colder? Hmmm…

      This was my first Joe Hill book, although my parents gave me a book of short stories for Christmas that I haven’t got to yet (20th Century Ghosts.) I will steer clear of The Trap; never been interested in the Mrs.’s writing, actually. Sounds like it made quite the impression on you!

      I shouldn’t crap all over James Patterson, because I’ve never read one of his books. But holy crap, they are EVERYWHERE. There are probably 50 or so downstairs. But 2000 holds? Sweet Jesus. My husband used to like Michael Connelly’s stuff, but he’s been way off the thriller/mystery genre now for a long time. And I’m adrift in a genre-less sea; aside from Stephen King’s weirdness-of-the-moment, there’s really nothing that’s grabbing my attention these days – not into fantasy, don’t really care for most of the YA series, burnt myself out on chick lit back in university…anything great you’d recommend?

      • Hmm…considering we are similar in nearly everything except our reading preferences, I hesitate to recommend anything. Maybe I should suggest books I hated, three words for you: The Virgin Suicides. Our opinions couldn’t have been more different. I mean you’ve seen some of my bookshelves, they’re filled with Sherlock Holmes pastiches and WWII accounts. The truth of it is, I’m not crazy about contemporary novels, I prefer historical fiction, and lately, I’ve been into YA fantasy, two genres you aren’t drawn to.

        Since you mentioned SK’s weirdness, there is a book I read that put me into that same weird place that King can take you-The Passage by Justin Cronin. I recommend it, as it stayed with me more than most horror novels do; for some reason it’s categorized Sci-Fi in our library but it reads very horror with some ‘end of times’ story lines mixed in. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6690798-the-passage?from_search=true Copy that link, if you want to research it a little. It’s part of a trilogy, but I haven’t finished the rest of the series, (story of my life). Jumping genres completely, if you used to be into chick lit but haven’t read Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding, I recommend it-love an honest voice.
        Because I’m warmed up, let’s roll with it; book with a moral center-The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, an adventure read that veers a little dark-City of Thieves by David Benioff (writer on Game of Thrones) it’s a WWII buddy story that I believe is way underrated, for fierce, feminine characters-The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, Celebrity memoir-Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming, modern YA, a little controversial-The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, historical YA-I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith-speaking of honest, unique voices, oy! Um…shit get’s real bleak-Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, or anything else I’ve recommended in my reviews this year. Guess I wasn’t as hesitant as I originally thought, happy reading:)

      • Excellent recommendations, thank you, I’m going to look into The Passage – I clearly like a good (or even not-so-good) horror or horror lite.

        Aw, Bridge – I love that hot mess, especially the book version. I think The Edge of Reason might actually be my favourite. Haven’t read the newest one where (SPOILER REDACTED) happens, but then again, I haven’t read the first two in over 10 years, probably. I should rectify that right now! Thank you for reminding me of the old gal again. 🙂

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