Review: Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill
Judas Coyne is a collector of the macabre: a cookbook for cannibals…a used hangman’s noose…a snuff film. An aging death-metal rock god, his taste for the unnatural is as widely known to his legions of fans as the notorious excesses of his youth. But nothing he possesses is as unlikely or as dreadful as his latest discovery, an item for sale on the Internet, a thing so terribly strange, Jude can’t help but reach for his wallet.
I will “sell” my stepfather’s ghost to the highest bidder…
For a thousand dollars, Jude will become the proud owner of a dead man’s suit, said to be haunted by a restless spirit. He isn’t afraid. He has spent a lifetime coping with ghosts–of an abusive father, of the lovers he callously abandoned, of the band-mates he betrayed. What’s one more?
But what UPS delivers to his door in a black heart-shaped box is no imaginary or metaphorical ghost, no benign conversation piece. It’s the real thing.
And suddenly the suit’s previous owner is everywhere: behind the bedroom door…seated in Jude’s restored vintage Mustang…standing outside his window…staring out from his widescreen TV. Waiting–with a gleaming razor blade on a chain dangling from one bony hand…
My Kindle library has grown out of control. I sweep up Daily Deals and free offers faster than I can read anything. At this point, I hardly recognize anything on my Kindle. But I always have something to read, and sometimes it’s fun to go into a book completely blind.
So it was that Heart-Shaped Box completely caught me by surprise. I knew that it’s written by Stephen King’s son, and I had a vague awareness that the plot revolved around buying a ghost from eBay. Having seen the trailers for the whimsical (if dark) Horns, based on another book by Joe Hill, I suppose I was expecting something similar. I don’t know. Man buys ghost on-line and they become unexpected friends, having many ghoulish adventures? Fun, dark, whimsy.
My partner was away for the week when I started reading this, so I had our place to myself. We were in the middle of a two-day rain, and the neighbors had just moved out so I felt particularly alone. These were, perhaps, the worst fucking circumstances to start reading this book.
Within four chapters I found myself scared shitless and wondering how this happened. This ghost, with a razor on his chain and black scribbles over his eyes, was anything but fun. It was scary as fuck! A handful of chapters later, I felt eyes on me. The rain outside created all sorts of disturbing noises to support that I was, indeed, being watched and about to be murdered. Doing what any respectable wimp would do, I retreated to my bedroom to read under the safety of blankets. The ghost appeared in the shadowy corners of my room, smiling, waiting for me to notice him there.
A part of me felt that the only way to solve this would be to see the novel finished, so I didn’t stop reading.
I am no stranger to horror. I love scary shit. As typically happens with fans of the genre, I’ve become pretty desensitized and don’t frighten easily any more. This book reminded me what it is to be terrified by my own imagination, a feeling I haven’t had since Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves.
There’s much more to this haunting than a simple ghost purchased on-line. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the novel unravels from horror to mystery, and mystery to dark fantasy. It’s at this point that the novel began to fall short for me.
Initially, the mystery behind the ghost’s intentions served only to propel me further. When you fully understand who he is and where he came from, the fear is lost. The hauntings become repetitive and predictable, the climax teeters on unbelievable.
The second half of the book becomes more about Jude seeing his past conquests as more than sex objects, and facing his own daddy issues. Unfortunately, I could not engage with Jude’s character enough to really care about his internal conflicts and ended my reading with a trace of disappointment.
Danny did not think coke and computers were anything alike. But Jude had seen the way people hunched over their screens, clicking the refresh button again and again, waiting for some crucial if meaningless hit of information, and he thought it was almost exactly the same.
A lot of his songs, when they started out, sounded like old music. They arrived on his doorstep, wandering orphans, the lost children of large and venerable musical families. They came to him in the form of Tin Pan Alley sing-alongs, honky-tonk blues, Dust Bowl plaints, lost Chuck Berry riffs. Jude dressed them in black and taught them to scream.
That was one thing you found out when you were stoned, or wasted, or feverish: that the world was always turning and that only a healthy mind could block out the sickening whirl of it.
Too many people die in hospitals, and if you can’t be helped, you have to wonder why.
A solid debut. Unfortunately, once the scares were over, I had trouble engaging with the characters and had no interest in the thick symbolism of the climax.
Stephen King’s style bleeds through Joe Hill’s writing, which I don’t mind. It reminded me of a lot of King’s early works, and this book is an easy recommendation for fans of that sort of horror. While I’m disappointed in the ending, the initial scares were jarring enough that I will gladly pick Hill up in the future.