Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #01: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill


In signing up for this, what will be my first Cannonball Read go-around, I had the simplest of motivations. All I wanted was to resurrect my high school self, the one who never walked the halls without a book at his side. Approximately five years ago, that version of me died as I stood with my fellow graduates in our school’s wretched piss-gold cap and gown that served no discernible purpose outside of trapping every last bit of heat. Guess the powers that be wanted to make sure we were well-done before shipping us off to be eaten alive by the adult world.

While I’ve not become one of those sad folk who never read for pleasure, I have reached a point where finishing a book has become rather a rarity. You see, I fall victim to this peculiar habit of starting books only to get sidetracked by life and forget all about them. Of the books I currently own, I’d say about a quarter are ones I’ve begun yet gotten no further than halfway through. I know part of me, somewhere deep down, is still that same bookish adolescent. Why else would I be such a frequent buyer of books?

The problem was with getting him to stop buying and start reading. He would occasionally poke his head out long enough to plow through a book or two, yet I always knew it was merely a matter of time before he did his disappearing act once more. No matter what tactic I tried, whether it be setting humble goals, such as finishing up what was left of Kurt Vonnegut’s bibliography by the end of the year, or letting him start in the kiddie pool and ease his way back in, I just couldn’t get him reacclimated.

Then I caught word of sign-ups for Cannonball Read 5 and seized the opportunity without a second thought. Prior to this, it was just me being let down, something I’m sad to say I’ve grown accustomed to over the years. Now, though, it’s about something bigger. Or, rather, about someone smaller, that being Lil A. Forget doing this for myself, for the sake of rekindling my long lost love of reading; this will be for Lil A and him alone.

Like him, I started out small with Heart-Shaped Box, the debut of Joe Hill, better known as son of famed author, and favorite of mine, Stephen King. Weighing in at a mere 351 pages, it took all of two days to read (and would have been one if not for work). At the start, I did my best to avoid the obvious comparisons to his father. Before long, though, it became apparent how indebted he was to his father’s writing, the story reading like Stephen King lite.

Except that wasn’t exactly a bad thing, at least not at first. He made many of the same mistakes people routinely call his father out for, such as overwriting or there being too many needless diversions, but he also nailed the sense of fear and foreboding his father’s made a living off of. Besides, it seemed the further I got, the less an issue those became.

As he rounded the corner and sprinted towards the finish line, however, he stumbled and fell, taking the entire field along with him. Honestly, what is it with Kings and endings? Neither father nor son can write one worth a damn, and I say this despite King being my favorite author. Still, King’s are, at worst, passable, whereas the one Hill conjures up for Heart-Shaped Box is like some sort of retconned clusterfuck.

I mean, dreams that come without warning, play as flashbacks, and aren’t distinguished as dreams until they’re nearly over; characters having eureka moments, only to forget all about them until hundreds of pages later when it’s convenient; rules that seem made up on the spot and not in keeping with what’s happened up until that point; an unearned and unsatisfying happy ending; feeble and unnecessary attempts at being hip and contemporary by mentioning things like My Chemical Romance and Doc Martens.

It’s a wonder I didn’t hurl Heart-Shaped Box through my window leaving a Book-Shaped Hole. I can’t think of so much as a single book that was the source of more personal frustration, and reading it made me understand where King’s critics are coming from. If every one of his books ended in similar fashion, there wouldn’t be a window left in the house as his books, each of which could double as the business end of a sledgehammer, would’ve shattered every last one of them by now.

That all being said, Hill isn’t hopeless; he’s just the rotten apple that fell inches from the tree. The talent is there, but he needs to get out of his father’s shadow first before it can truly shine.

Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

2 thoughts on “Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #01: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

  1. I agree with you about the both the annoying “hip references” and the ending of the book, both of which were disappointments. But I kept with Joe Hill and thought both Horns and 20th Century Ghosts (at least most of the short stories) were a vast improvement. I’m looking forward to his new one in a few months.
    Nice review, welcome to the Cannonball!

  2. My copy of Heart-Shaped Box has an excerpt from 20th Century Ghosts, but I avoided reading it because I thought it’d probably just get my hopes up. I might have to give it a read, though. I’ve always been a fan of short story collections, which is a large reason why Stephen King’s my favorite author.

    Also, thank you for the kind welcome. I only wish Tumblr hadn’t lost my initial, and vastly superior, review. The one time the “unsaved draft” feature fails me and it’s when I’ve written my best review in ages. Naturally.

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