No, he’s not Joe Hill, singer and labor activist, whose 1915 execution still stirs up
controversy and debate.  And he’s not Blind Joe Hill, West Virginian blues singer,
or bearded Joe Hill, bassist with ZZ Top.

His full name is Joseph Hillstrom King, and he is the
son of horror fiction royalty, the progenitor King in this
instance is Stephen King, whose books have sold 350
million copies. Hill adopted his pseudonym out of a
desire to succeed on his own, without the boost of an
illustrious literary lineage to generate a ready-made
audience.  (By the way, his name does reflect a different
connection to the past—he was named after the famous
labor leader.)

Hill succeeded in keeping his real identity a secret for the
first decade of his writing career. Well, more or less. As
one fellow author grumbled: it was “the worst-kept secret
in the history of secrets.” Rumors circulated, spurred both
by a similarity in subject and style, as well as an equally
marked resemblance in personal appearance. One glance
at father and son, and the DNA match is pretty much
confirmed. But when Hill sold the movie rights to
Shaped Box
to Warner Bros. in 2006, Variety announced
that the author’s father was Stephen King, and the next year Hill publicly acknowledged
his family ties.  "I really wanted to allow myself to rise and fall on my own merits," he
explained to the press. "One of the good things about it was that it let me make my
mistakes in private."

Should he have kept his illustrious gene pool a secret? Don’t underestimate the downside
of having a famous writer for a father. I could cite chapter and verse about children of
literary masters I’ve known who never realized their own enormous potential because of
the large shadow cast by a legendary parent. So I give Hill credit for putting himself into
competition with the best—inviting comparisons that few authors would relish, even if
they would enjoy the benefits of a relative’s renown or connections.

And not only does Joe Hill invite (and live up to, let me add) comparisons with his
bestselling father in his debut novel, but he also takes the oldest—and, dare I say, the
stalest?—horror subgenre, the ghost story, and makes it feel fresh and contemporary.
Would you like to have the task of interesting an agent or editor in a ghost story in the
21st century? I’d pass on that. Or, put differently, if writing tasks were assigned degree
of difficulty ratings, like platform dives and skating moves, Joe Hill maxed out on his
maiden voyage.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that Hill’s first book deals with a son who changes his name,
but finds himself drawn back into his past, in particular his relationship with his father.
Justin Cowzynski has pursued a long, successful career as a doom metal musician in
the mold of Ozzy and company (and I don’t mean Harriet, David and Ricky), but to grab
an audience he needed a nastier name—eventually settling on the quasi-Biblical Judas
Coyne, with its overtones of hanging and thirty pieces of silver. In this new guise, he
enjoys gold records and goth groupies galore, and has now settled down to an unsettled
middle-age, which is about to get even more unsettling.

You see, Judas has another thing in common with his author. Both have an interest in
the occult. Coyne’s private collection includes a hangman’s noose, a witch’s confession
and a chess set once owned by Aleister Crowley, but he’s always on the lookout for
something new and creepy to add to the archive. His assistant Danny obliges him,
one inauspicious morning, when he announces to his boss that a ghost is for sale on
the Internet.

How can Coyne resist such an unusual offer.  Check out the details:

"“I will 'sell' my stepfather’s ghost to the highest bidder," explains the web listing. "Of
course a soul cannot really be sold, but I believe he will come to your home and abide
with you if you put out the welcome mat….Do not think this is a stunt or a practical joke
and that I will take your money and send you nothing.  The winning bidder will have
something solid to show for their investment. I will send you his Sunday suit. I believe
that if his spirit is attached to anything, it has to be that."

Coyne is intrigued, and when he sees that the suit is his own exact size, he can’t resist.
He puts in a thousand dollar offer, and a few days later the suit arrives in a black heart-
shaped box, like something straight out of a Nirvana song.

Judas Coyne should have kept his pieces of silver, and passed on the suit. His life will
never be the same, and not only will he be haunted by his web-bought ghost, but this
spook is a vengeful one. As it turns out, the auction was a sly set-up. The ghost’s daughter
was one of Coyne’s previous Goth groupies, now apparently dead from suicide, and our
rock star has his own black Sabbath to deal with 24/7.

All this happens in the opening pages of Heart-Shaped Box. In fact, Hill moves so
rapidly in setting up the main parameters of his story that readers justifiably wonder
whether he can maintain the initial burst of energy that animates the opening chapters.
But Hill has plenty of plot twists planned for the reader in the next 350 pages, and pushes
his narrative ahead with nary a misstep. I’m hardly surprised that movie rights were
snatched up so quickly, with Akiva Goldsman (
A Beautiful Mind) and Neil Jordan (The
Crying Game
) getting on board the project. This story is perfectly suited for cinematic
treatment. Alas, Warner Bros. pulled the plug after Jordan finished the script, but recent
word is that the studio has put the movie back into 'redevelopment'—whatever that

Yet readers don’t need to wait for Hollywood to get its act together. This is a first-rate
genre novel, a book almost as accomplished as Hill’s father’s impressive debut
which launched Mr. King’s career three decades earlier. Carrie is a bit more advanced
from the standpoint of structure—King doesn’t get credit for the intricate pointillistic
style with dabs of stream-of-consciousness that distinguished his first book—but Hill
gets top marks for character development and pacing.

The King family legacy can also be detected in the author’s confidence in moving beyond
the familiar tropes of scary stories. Many writers in the horror genre see every character
as either a victim or victimizer, and don’t know how to write a convincing scene that deals
with romance, comedy or anything outside the realm of action and suspense. Strange to
say, some of the best parts of a Stephen King novel have nothing to do with horror, but
merely fill in a back story, or bring a character to life, or add a moment of comic relief.
Joe Hill is much the same, and when he takes an apparent detour in this novel to discuss,
say, groupies or heavy metal, he handles these interludes just as deftly as he does the
dramatic entanglements with supernatural forces.    

But choosing between the father and son is splitting hairs. The highest praise I could
apply to Heart-Shaped Box is the simple statement that, if this book had been attributed
to the father instead of the son, it would rank among Stephen King’s finer works.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz from
Basic Books.

Publication Date: December 17, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James

Week 16:
Rosemary's Baby
By Ira Levin

Week 17:
The King in Yellow
By Robert W. Chambers

Week 18:
By Daphne Du Maurier

Week 19
The Woman in the Dunes
by Kōbō Abe

Week 20
The Dark Eidolon
by Clark Ashton Smith

Week 21
Off Season
by Jack Ketchum

Week 22
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3
by Clive Barker

Week 23
The Silence of the Lambs
by Thomas Harris

Week 24
The Orange Eats Creeps
by Grace Krilanovich

Week 25
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Week 26
by Robert Bloch

Week 27
by Octavia E. Butler

Week 28
Demons by Daylight
by Ramsey Campbell

Week 29
The Complete Short Stories
by Ambrose Bierce

Week 30
Pet Sematary
by Stephen King

Week 31
Our Lady of Darkness
by Fritz Leiber

Week 32
by John Gardner

Week 33
White is for Witching
by Helen Oyeyemi

Week 34
The Wasp Factory
by Iain Banks

Week 35
King Kong
by Edgar Wallace

Week 36
The Castle of Otranto
by Horace Walpole

Week 37
The John Silence Stories
by Algernon Blackwood

Week 38
The Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter

Week 39
The Other
by Thomas Tryon

Week 40
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro

Week 41
Ghost Story
by Peter Straub

Week 42
John Dies at the End
by David Wong

Week 43
The Great God Pan
by Arthur Machen

Week 44
The Cipher
by Kathe Koja

Week 45
Let the Right One In
by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Week 46
The Nameless
by Ramsey Campbell

Week 47
by Grady Hendrix

Week 48
by Taichi Yamada

Week 49
World War Z
by Max Brooks

Week 50
Jurassic Park
by Michael Crichton

Week 51
Heart-Shaped Box
by Joe Hill
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction

Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box
Essay by Ted Gioia
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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