Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
Published by William Morrow
After having won numerous awards for his short stories in the collection, 20th Century Ghosts, as well as the collection itself, Joe Hill bursts into novel-length fiction with Heart-Shaped Box. A great deal of buzz surrounds the book, from a film deal to the gushing blurbs on the back from genre stars like Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link to Joe Hill’s appearance on Good Morning America on publication date of the book. Most hype should be taken with at least a grain of salt, in fairness to the object of the hype. While such hype is extremely difficult to live up to, it’s a good thing for Joe Hill, and the readers, the story is very good.
The story centers on Judas Coyne, your typical aging heavy-metal star. He’s in the twilight of his career and like many people in his line of work, is fascinated with obscure arcane objects. He’s got a noose that hung a man at the turn of the century, a Salem witch’s confession, and a snuff film. It was only natural he would eventually acquire a dead man’s suit and the spirit who inhabits it. As is always the case with such things, and what sets these stories in motion, is when one regretfully receives the item for which they wished. The ghost Jude acquires happens to be the stepfather of Anna, an ex-girlfriend Jude unceremoniously threw out of his house and life. The ghost, Craddock James McDermott wants to take revenge upon Jude for his ruination of his beloved step-daughter Anna. Most ghosts are more than simple hauntings, Craddock is no different.
Ghost stories are perhaps the most tried-and-true tales of the supernatural. Very often these stories serve to focus the characters about which the stories are told, allowing them to reflect upon their life. Joe Hill does great things with this premise, exploring a tortured man who is often his own worst enemy. Through the course of the story, Jude re-examines his life, from his harsh childhood growing up on a Louisiana farm with an overbearing father to his regrets later in life about his band-mates and love life. Hill deftly intersperses the flashback scenes with the “current” action of Jude’s story. Some of the most potent scenes are Jude’s reflections on his former bandmates, ghosts he has even less control over.
The story would be tough enough for Jude if he were alone. When the suit and ghost arrive, Jude has an assistant, Danny, and a live-in girlfriend, Georgia. The ghost is mighty powerful and has dark affects on all those who surround, and more importantly help, Jude. Since Danny helped Jude purchase the ghost and was working for Jude while Anna lived with him, Danny is perhaps the least safe person surrounding Jude. Georgia is in just as much danger as Jude, she is after all the girl who followed Anna. Growing up on a farm, Jude was always around dogs, so his shepherds, Bon and Angus become involved with the ghostly conflict.
The book transcends such simple summations, and has a lot to offer for many readers. Myself, as a long time fan of the type of music Judas performs, appreciated the inside nods, like naming Jude’s dogs after the two lead-singers of AC/DC, and other hard rock/heavy metal references throughout the story. Hill also referenced writers of ghosts and the supernatural throughout the story. Where the story transcends both the genre and just being a “good story” is how effectively Joe Hill puts forth the reality of Jude’s situation. One gets the sense that the story could be an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music after taking a very dark turn. Even though Jude is a living legend of an almost Ozzy Osbourne status, Hill paints a picture of a real man haunted by his past and current demons.
Slowly, the story unfolds revealing truths about the specter haunting Jude that are darker than he could have imagined. Ghosts often mete out judgment, even if the judgment is unfairly leavened on the target. When the ghost begins to haunt Jude, the novel turns into something of a road novel, with Jude and Georgia both fleeing the ghost and attempting to track down who sold the ghost to Jude. Along the way, the affect the ghost has on Jude and Georgia infects everything they touch. The story builds great tension as Jude travels the country in search of a fix to his problem as everything with which Jude comes into contact is affected by the ghost of Craddock.
His collection, 20th Century Ghosts, might be more of a solid effort, but by no means is Heart-Shaped Box an inferior work. I haven’t followed the Horror genre as closely as perhaps Fantasy or Science Fiction, but Hill’s debut novel is as assured a debut novel as I have ever read, regardless of genre. Heart-Shaped Box, itself an entertaining and superb novel, offers hints of a great writing career to come.
© 2007 Rob H. Bedford
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