Reviewed by Johnny Butane
Written by Joe Hill
Published by Harper Collins
When Christopher Golden thrust a collection in my hands at the 2005 Rock and Shock convention called 20th Century Ghosts, hailing it as one of the best collections of short stories he’s ever read, I really had no idea what I was in for. The book, which I later received from its publisher, is truly an amazing collection of some of the most original short fiction, horror or otherwise, that I’ve ever had the pleasure to tickly my ocular nerves with (you can read my full review of it here).
But there’s a big difference (usually a few thousand words) between banging out a short story and tackling a full-blown novel, so I was concerned when I heard that that was exactly what author Joe Hill had planned next. The premise, about a man who buys a ghost off the internet, was odd enough to piqued my interest and since Joe had proven himself to be a skilled wordslinger already, I tracked down the reader’s copy whole-heartedly.
Thank God I did, too, because Heart-Shaped Box is truly a kick ass novel. Original, touching and terrifying all at the same time, this is the kind of book that most authors work their whole lives to churn out. Joe’s done it on his first attempt.
Though the basic premise seems a bit odd, the way it all unfolds makes a lot of sense. Aging rockstar Judas Coyne, aka Jude, has a massive collection of some of the most fucked-up curios one could ever want to own, up to and including a genuine snuff film, the impetus for his wife leaving him years earlier. So when his personal assistant tells him he found a ghost for sale online for a cool thousand, Jude doesn’t even think twice about scooping it up.
What arrives is a black, heart-shaped box with a man’s suit in it. Certainly not as creepy as Jude was originally hoping for, he stows the suit away out of sight and waits to see what happens with this supposed “ghost”. Sure enough, on its first night in the house, Jude sees an old man sitting in a chair in his hallway, head down, swinging a pendulum in the shape of a small blade. For whatever reason Jude knows that he cannot look into the ghost’s eyes or he’ll see something horrible.
Days go by and more and more strange occurrences happen. When his girlfriend, whose real name is Mary Beth but he calls Georgia to remind her of where she comes from, sees the ghost as well, she insists they get rid of the suit. Though they’re not entirely sure why, they know that this ghost means them harm. When his personal assistant, who can usually be counted on to stick with Jude through anything, ups and leaves one day with barely a word, Jude knows he has to get to the bottom of things.
He discovers that this isn’t some random ghost that was up for grabs on the internet; all of this has been orchestrated by a woman who wants revenge on Jude, feeling he’s responsible for her sister’s suicide. But the truth of the situation is far more complicated than even they can imagine, and pretty soon Jude and Georgia are racing to put an end to their haunting before it kills them both.
What stuck me after the first few pages of Heart-Shaped Box was how immediate and real my connection to Jude felt; Hill created a fully three-dimensional character, one the reader will feel like they know personally, in the span of about a dozen pages. That’s how you hook your reader and keep them with you for the entire tale. It’s also the primary element for a successful horror story of any kind; if you don’t care about the person in danger, why bother finding out if they survive it?
And even though the premise in its simplest form might sound a bit silly or light-hearted, Heart-Shaped Box is anything but. This ghost has severe, damaging plans for Jude and anyone Jude goes to for help. He’s on a mission to end his life and he’s got all the time in the world to make it happen. The methods he uses consist of attempting to convince Jude to kill his Georgia and then end his own life; far more nefarious than just throwing some objects around or making creepy sounds.
Full of well-defined characters and thoughtful insights into the human condition, Heart-Shaped Box manages to transcend the usual horror fare to become an unforgettable debut novel that proves yet again what a dangerous talent Joe Hill really is. The book was so well-loved by Harper Collins that they’ve already sold the movie rights, had done so months before the book was even finalized; it’ll be interesting to see how the film turns out as so much of what makes Jude a solid character are his internal conflicts. Hopefully it won’t turn into another case of the book being better than the movie, but don’t take that chance and get the book when Harper Collins puts it on shelves this February 13th.
4 1/2 out of 5
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