In Heart Shaped Box by Joe Hill, Judas Jude Coyne, aging grunge rocker and collector of oddities and antiquities, purchases a ghost online. He later learns the ghost, Craddock McDermott, is the step-father of his ex-girlfriend, Anna, and he has a vendetta settle with Jude. Both Craddock and Anna’s sister, Jessica blame Jude for Anna’s death. After the ghost kills Jude’s assistant Danny and nearly killing Jude, he and his current girlfriend, Marybeth (whom Jude has nicknamed Georgia) set out on a quest to deliver Craddock’s ghost home.
Heart Shaped Box is a novel reminiscent of Stephen King’s early horror stories, such as Christine, Carrie or The Shining, that is to say, it is more gory horror than spooky horror. For me, the joy of reading horror should have the same effect as rushing down the highest embankment of a roller coaster–heart pumpingly scary. When I was a preteen, I was hooked on the Real Canadian Ghost Stories series I used to buy from the Scholastic Books magazine. Those stories were freaky, so much so that I had to stop reading them once I found I couldn’t sleep soundly without my bedroom door open, the hallway light on, and first checking in my closet and under my bed for ethereal trespassers. In this respect, Heart Shaped Box does not deliver.
Hill’s horror is gruesome and violent and not for the faint of heart. After Marybeth pricks her finger on a ghostly pin hidden in Craddock’s suit, and the wound festers, Hill describes it in high definition. When Jude’s finger is blown off after he’s shot, Hill paints the picture for the reader in glorious, living technicolor. It’s a testament to Hill’s prose and storytelling ability that I continued to read in spite of being utterly and totally grossed out. Coyne’s character (think Treasure Trader’s Billy Jamieson) is a reluctant anti-hero. A drug abuser and alcoholic raised by an abusive father, he goes through a series of girls half his age, referring to them by their cities of origin rather than their given names. He pities himself enough to want to give in to Craddock’s mind control and end his life, but when that plan is thwarted by Marybeth, Jude turns around, vowing to do her the same favour. The only way to do that is to see his quest through to the bitter end, in spite of the fact that it may mean the end of his life as well.
Heart Shaped Box is a good read, but it’s not true horror. Quite frankly, there are more chills to be had listening to voices from Zak Bagans’s ghost box on The Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures series or TAPS EVPs than reading this novel, but that’s not to say it’s not worth reading. Joe Hill is an excellent author, worthy of my earlier King comparison. He tells a great story, sure to put a chill in your heart and a churn in your belly.
Do you read Joe Hill? What do you think about his knack for tale telling this bloody brand of horror?