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Spotlight on: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

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Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill Joe Hill, Heart-Shaped Box

Author Joe Hill somehow managed the unthinkable: for ten years he published short stories in various magazines and anthologies, released a collection of some of those stories to critical acclaim, and basically became the Next Big Thing in horror fiction, all the while keeping secret the fact that the most successful practitioner in that genre is his father.

But what is perhaps even more surprising than Hill's ability to keep that secret, however, is that the Next Big Thing idea might not be too far off the mark. Heart-Shaped Box is undoubtedly the best ghost story to cross my desk in some time.

Steeped in the old-fashioned, but thoroughly modern, I feel safe in saying that this book is a classic in the making. I haven't felt this compelled to keep turning pages — and been as rewarded for the effort — since the mid-1980s, when an entire Sunday afternoon disappeared while I read Carrie (appropriately enough, though the two books could hardly be more different in style and tone).

From the first page of Heart-Shaped Box, Hill sets up his protagonist quickly, letting us know in a few short paragraphs that Jude Coyne is a unique sort of collector. So when this aging, ex-rock star's personal assistant shows him a listing on an Internet auction site ("not eBay, but one of the wannabes") that is selling a ghost, Jude clicks the YOURS NOW! button without much thought. Even when the titular box arrives on his doorstep, containing a suit belonging to the dead man, Jude puts it away and forgets about it.

But this ghost will not be ignored for long, and it soon makes itself known in various ways, as pieces of this curious puzzle are revealed. The ghost's motive for personal revenge is understandable enough, but what is really impressive is its single-minded determination. Here, Hill's short-story training pays off as he relates a series of increasingly unpleasant events with an economy of words, as attempt after attempt on Jude's life (and those of his loved ones) is barely averted — at least early on. Finding out that there was really no way Jude could have avoided this run-in with the otherworld gives us even more reason to sympathize. From the time the heart-shaped box enters Jude's world, nothing is safe, and Hill keeps the dread palpable throughout while allowing periodic respites for breath-catching with humor and character development.

Hill doesn't rely on silly contrivances to keep his story moving, such as have become prevalent in the genre. Each of the plot points in Heart-Shaped Box has been intelligently considered and flows naturally from what came before — a return to the basics of storytelling on a par with the best campfire spookfests. Plus, his talent for inserting fear into the mundane makes sure we will never see the innocuous surroundings of daily life (especially our favorite electronics) the same way again.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2007. Reprinted with permission.

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