Today I want to look at Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill.
Heart-Shaped Box was published in 2007 and was Joe Hill’s first novel. It won the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel.
Being a huge Stephen King fan, I was naturally drawn to this book by his son and I was not disappointed. Joe certainly shares his father’s skill for storytelling with well-crafted plots, believable characters and a firm grasp of what makes the horror genre great.
Judas Coyne is an ageing rock star and now spends his time on his collection of morbid memorabilia, which includes items like a real snuff film. At the start of the novel, Jude is looking to purchase a dead man’s funeral suit. He is informed by the dead man’s daughter, Jessica Price, that the old man’s spirit effectively haunts the suit. In Jude’s eyes he is buying a ghost, he does not pass the opportunity up and the suit arrives in the titular heart-shaped box.
Over time the ghost becomes more active and Jude realises it has it in mind to kill him. Jude comes to learn that the suit was owned by the stepfather of a woman, Florida (not her actual name, a nickname Jude gives her), whom Jude lived with for a few months, but he left her and she killed herself. He believes that the ghost blames him for Florida’s suicide and is out for revenge.
Jude and his current girlfriend, Georgia, flee the property, but the ghost follows him, fended off periodically by Jude’s two dogs. Sadly, the dogs are killed by the ghost. The actual story is revealed, that Florida was molested by her stepfather. When she threatened to go to the police the stepfather killed her and, with the help of Florida’s sister Jessica, made it look like a suicide. The stepfather then hexed the suit and Jessica sold it to Jude. Eventually, Georgia contacts Florida from beyond the grave and she helps Jude and Georgia defeat the ghost of her stepfather. Happy endings all round, Jessica goes to jail and Jude and Georgia marry.
I think that this is a great story, though it is not my favourite Joe Hill book, Horns was my personal favourite so far.
The characters in Heart-Shaped Box are well crafted, Jude, in particular, is well put together with his actions backing up his passive personality. His habit of collecting ghoulish items is an interest but it is one that stemmed from his past as a goth/rock star, it’s a costume to him. So, when he purchases an actual ghost it’s wonderful to see how he responds, especially when the ghost proves to be a real threat.
But I think perhaps my favourite thing about Jude is that he feels like what he is supposed to be. His internal musings and behaviour feel real, they feel like what someone who had lived the rock star life would honestly be like. Even his asshole like tendency to nickname his girlfriends after that states they come from rather than use their actual names feels real. The arrogance that underlies him is very well crafted and does not stop him from being sympathetic.
The ghost itself is also wonderfully crafted, and made to feel truly malevolent, despite being insubstantial fail looking, old man.
Heart-Shaped box draws on several fears to torment the readers, naturally, there is the supernatural element in the form of the ghost which is now haunting Jude. But there are other types of horror and fear that give this story its bones and create a wonderful atmosphere. The fear of human monsters is the most obvious, Florida’s history and death all stem from a very real, non-supernatural threat. Her isolation and Jude’s dispassion regarding her, he knew she was depressed but never bothered with it, are very tangible fears that many people experience. That harsh dose of reality in such a fantastical story keeps it rooted in reality in a way that makes your skin want to crawl off your bones and hide.
So by combining supernatural, psychological, and survival fear with the mystery element Joe Hill has excellently crafted his debut novel and he’s only got stronger from here, so I highly recommend Heart-Shaped Box, but only as of the first of many, you will want to read.