If you read my review of “20th Century Ghosts” by Joe Hill, you know that I have been looking forward to reading his full-length novels. I discovered Hill through his short fiction and was anxious to see what he could do in a long form novel. I decided to start with his debut – “Heart-Shaped Box”, and it more than delivered on what I had hoped for. If you are a fan of horror novels, or just novels in general, you should give this book a try. It doesn’t disappoint. Why you ask? More after the jump…
At its core, “Heart-Shaped Box” is a ghost story. It tells the story of Judas (Jude) Coyne; aging rock star, flawed man, and collector of things both strange and disturbing. When his assistant finds an online auction offering a ghost for sale, he is intrigued. He decides to put in a bid and wins. What is delivered to him is an old suit, packaged in a large, heart-shaped box. Along with the suit, just as promised, came the ghost.
After Jude and his live-in girlfriend Georgia both have an encounter with the ghost, they begin to question what exactly is going on. We soon learn that, perhaps, there is more than meets the eye with the situation. Judas learns that there is a connection between himself and the seller of the ghost – a connection that is going to force him to take a look at his life and some of the mistakes that he has made. It’s going to reopen some old wounds, and make some new ones. As it says on the books cover – “Sooner or later the dead catch up…”
What I loved most about this story is that it was truly frightening. It was neither gross just for the sake of being gross (although there was a fair amount of blood); nor was it shocking and offensive just for the sake of being shocking and offensive (although it did not pull any punches). It was a story about something, and that something was surrounded by scary. The horror elements felt organic to the story, not gratuitous, which only served to heighten the sense anxiousness I felt while reading.
Perhaps my favorite example of this was Hill’s description of the ghost’s eyes in the story.
He glanced down at the ghost, and at the same time the dead man lifted his head and his eyes rolled open. But where his eyes belonged was only a black scribble. It was as if a child has taken a Magic Marker – a truly magic marker, one that could draw right on the air – and had desperately tried to ink over them. The black lines squirmed and tangled among one another, worms tied into a knot.
It was a simple image – one among many in the book – but it really stuck with me. There was no squirting blood, no crawling maggots, but I could see that black scribble moving and writhing, like a macabre flash animation. It was an image that held power in its simplicity, and force in its starkness. It genuinely frightened me – and I love that.
As I said earlier, “Heart-Shaped Box” is a ghost story – but it’s also much more than that. This was a story about the dangers of self-indulgence and self-delusion. It was a story about redemption and forgiveness – about taking a wrong and putting it right. It was a story about the belief that even the most tragic of circumstances can still be the ground from which a good thing can grow. In many ways, the ghost story itself was secondary to the story of Jude and Georgia’s journeys – both physical and spiritual – along the road to learning that maybe, just maybe, there are second chances.
Hill writes with a practiced and polished style – all the more impressive, given that this was his debut novel. I’m sure that it didn’t hurt to grow up with Stephen King as his father – but that was no guarantee that Hill would develop into a literary talent. The shelves, airwaves, and screens are littered with children of famous parents, who hold no appeal of their own outside of their famous names. What I respect most about Hill was his desire to establish himself in his own right. It would have been easy to break into the book world, using his famous name as a battering ram. He chose to eschew that route, instead opting to make a name for himself on his own. As he said in one interview:
I thought that if I wrote under my own name, there would be the temptation to publish work that was not so good, just to make use of that last name – whereas if I wrote as Joe Hill, and no one would know who I was, there would be an opportunity to rise and fall on my own merits.
While he did have some short fiction published, he had more than a few novels that he could not get published – but he kept at it. The first fruit of that determination was “Heart-Shaped Box”. Eventually is was sure to come out who his father was – but by that time he had already established that he could spin a tale, sell a book, and find an audience on his own.
This was a tremendous novel filled with vivid and sometimes delightfully frightening imagery. It was conversational and comfortable to read – with so many of the little touches that take a good book and make it great (for example – Jude’s dogs are named Bon and Angus.) Most importantly, it contained a core pair of characters, in Jude and Georgia that I really came to care about. I wanted to know what happened to them – you can’t ask for more than that in a story. I hope Hill continues to find success – he deserves it. For my part – consider me a fan.
P.S. – Joe, if you are reading this – any chance we will see the Backwards Walking Man, mentioned in passing during this book, in a future novel? He sounds like a great character…
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