May 8, 2008

Mini-review: "Heart-Shaped Box," by Joe Hill

(CCLaP publishes mini-reviews of both books and movies on a regular basis, none lasting more than a few hundred words. A full list of CCLaP's book-based mini-reviews can be found on its main book page, and movies on the main movie page.)

Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box (book; 2007)
By Joe Hill
William Morrow / ISBN: 978-0-06-114793-7

Regular readers know that one of the subjects I'm often talking about here at CCLaP is that of so-called "genre fiction" versus "mainstream literature," and especially of the natural danger of the former; that many genre novels are as popular as they are simply because they deliver that genre's fetishistic details in spades, not necessarily because they're good at the building blocks behind all good literature (or in other words, character and plot and style, the same criteria off which CCLaP's reviews are based). So why bother reading genre pieces when you're not a natural fan of that genre? Well, because every so often, a genre novel will come out that is good at the literary ABCs, that does appeal to audience members besides those who naturally love that genre to begin with, and as a result become much more exciting and worthwhile projects than simple mainstream literature; to cite a good recent example, think of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-winning The Road, how on the surface it seems like any other post-apocalyptic science-fiction thriller but in reality actually tells a much deeper and more profound message than most other books of that genre.

That's what led me, frankly, to reading 2007's Heart-Shaped Box this week, the surprisingly popular debut novel by Joe Hill; because it's a genre novel itself, to tell you the truth, a genre I don't usually care for that much (horror, to be specific), but one that's been getting a lot of attention in the last year from places other than the horror community, a small-press novel that has nonetheless landed in the top 10 of the New York Times bestseller list and with a big-budget Hollywood adaptation by Neil Jordan coming out later this year. Ah, but then I actually read it, and am now even more confused than I was before; because to be perfectly frank, Heart-Shaped Box is an okay novel but certainly nothing better than most other horror books, or at least from the viewpoint of this non-fan who tends to lump all their storylines together. Because really, if you want to think of genre novels in a standardized, almost scientific way, you can really think of them like this -- that all genre novels basically start with a semi-hacky plotline full of easily-guessed cliches (which is why they're known as genre novels in the first place), and how good or bad that novel turns out to be hinges on where that author goes with that semi-hacky plotline, either upwards into unexpected territory or downwards to wallow in its hacky, cliched mess.

And that's the biggest problem with Heart-Shaped Box; unlike the best genre work out there, the stuff that legitimately breaks through to a general mainstream audience, here Hill chooses to wallow in the most predictable cliches available whenever given the choice, whenever given the chance to otherwise elevate his material into something truly unique. Because I mean, seriously, just how many more horror projects do we need that feature as its main villain a creepy horse-faced old man in an antique black suit and fedora hat who talks with a threatening southern drawl? Or dogs that can somehow preternaturally sense the looming evil around them long before the humans do? Or sassy grandmas who accidentally provide the key to the story's entire resolution, through their folksy sayin's spouted around their homey kitchen during a down moment in the plot? These are all bad cliches of the horror genre, the things that make me as a non-fan flee from most hackneyed books within that genre; the entire reason I picked up Heart-Shaped Box was because I thought it was going to be better than that, given the fanatical grassroots popularity the book has inspired since first coming out.

Unfortunately the book is not that; it's a decent horror story, don't get me wrong, but ultimately nothing better or even different than a typical Stephen King novel circa 1982 or so, all haunted cars and cheesy inner dialogue and badly dated rock lyrics and the whole bit. (And speaking of which, by the way, can I just get this off my chest, please? What self-respecting death-metal veteran would ever possibly consider Counting Crows and Coldplay among his favorite bands? Cheese And Rice, Joe Hill, pick a music style and stick with it already, or don't bother making your main character a grizzled death-metal veteran to begin with.) If you're already a fan of horror novels, by all means go ahead and pick it up if you haven't already; if you're like me, though, and tend to only tackle a handful of such projects per year, Heart-Shaped Box unfortunately should not be one of them.

Out of 10: 6.8, or 7.8 for horror fans

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:38 PM, May 8, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |