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Heart-Shaped Box


I’m not usually attracted to horror stories, but Joe Hill‘s debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, really pulled me in. That’s not entirely a surprise, Hill is the son of horror-writer Steven King. He’s clearly learned from the master.

The book opens with 54-year-old death metal rocker Jude Coyne, né Justin Cowzynski, buying a ghost that his assistant has found at an online auction site. The ghost comes with a black Sunday suit – just Jude’s size, coincidentally – mailed by the seller, the ghost’s step-daughter, who is sure he will follow. It’s probably a rip-off, but it’s only $1,000 – nine grand cheaper than the winning eBay bid for a decade-old grilled cheese sandwich purportedly featuring the image of Jesus’ mother – and Jude is really into death artifacts. Anyway, as befits a man whose last name is a numismatic homonym, money is no object.



A Novel

Jude proudly displays sketches of the Seven Dwarfs that John Wayne Gacy drew while in jail and sent to him. He keeps his pens jammed into the hole of an actual skull of a sixteenth century peasant who had been trepanned to let the demons out. He owns a noose used to hang a man in England in the 1800s and even an actual snuff film, a gift from a fan who worked in law enforcement. Despite his taste for death memorabilia, Jude isn’t exactly untroubled by owning the snuff film. But he hasn’t got rid of it either.

A death metal musician with a taste for the macabre, not only in his public persona but in private life as well, sounds like a caricature. Add that, his girlfriend is a Goth ex-stripper half his age. But Hill is very good at investing this character with a real personality. Despite the grim trappings, we actually care about his life and his plight.

And, as it turns out, Jude is haunted by more than what is in the heart-shaped box the UPS man delivers to fulfill Jude’s spectral purchase.

As Justin, he grew up in an abusive household ruled by a tyrannical father against whom he and his mother were defenseless. Having turned that trauma into a persona and a seemingly strong and confident inner-self, Jude carries his scars. His marriage didn’t work out, and he doesn’t quite register the insult behind referring to his girlfriends by their home states. Georgia, née Marybeth, doesn’t seem to mind that much, and neither did her predecessor Florida, née Anna. However, late in the novel Jude slips and refers to a much earlier iteration, who has since gotten her life settled, as Tennessee; it’s a well-written moment because Jude has finally come to realize what’s wrong with this depersonalizing tic, and Tennessee, though she quickly recovers, is momentarily brought back to a now-regrettable past.

Similarly, Jude has long put as much physical distance as possible between himself and his nearly-dead father, but he also pays for the dying man’s nurse and other expenses.

Hill deftly reveals this psychological backdrop to the characters as the story develops in a page-turning what-the-hell-comes-next plot.

The ghost, it turns out, is not some random dead old man but rather the relative of one of Jude’s old girlfriends. For most of the story, we believe – as Jude comes to believe – that he is reaping the fruits of his conscienceless behavior.

Craddock, the ghost, is intent on seeing Jude dead, and promises that anyone who aids Jude will die as well. Craddock has some ill-defined powers of mind control, and it is only Jude’s waning inner-strength that upsets several attempts by Craddock to bring about what would look like the murder-suicide of Jude and Georgia. Hearing a voice-inside-their-heads would be too old-fashioned – and, as the author is doubtless aware, would not work so hot when the story makes it to the big screen – so Craddock is also able to telephone Jude and to hijack the voices coming over the radio.

It will work very nice in the movie version if Craddock’s message can meld into a Rush Limbaugh rant playing on the radio as Jude and Georgia flee down the highway.

The only forces that can keep Craddock at bay, as Jude discovers almost too late, are his dogs, Angus and Bon. Actually, it is each dog’s spiritual double that menaces Craddock when he draws too near.

To tell much more about the story would give away delicious plot points that readers deserve to discover themselves, preferably home alone, late at night with the wind rattling a tree branch against a window pane.

Heart Shaped



One last observation: the title of the book will of course put many readers in mind of the song by Nirvana. Rock enthusiasts and close readers of music lyrics have a rich lode to mine here. Is Jude meant to be Hill’s imagining of what Kurt Cobain’s life might have been like had he lived into his fifties? Doubtless others will make much of echoes from the lyrics of “Heart Shaped Box” in themes of the novel. Lines like “I was drawn into your magnet tar pit trap/I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn back” and “Meat-eating orchids forgive no one just yet” – you don’t have to know the difference between Courtney Love and Georgia O’Keefe to make something out of the latter – will have particular resonance.

I look forward to reading some of that criticism. Meanwhile, this is a fine debut novel that transcends the horror genre, and I eagerly look forward to reading more of Joe Hill’s stories.

Share  Posted by mzeringue at 10:35 AM | Permalink

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