Heart Shaped Box

I was at the library the other day, staring into space, trying to remember what book I wanted to get. All I could remember was that the website was nifty, the author was using a pseudonym and that I'd heard really terrific things about the book from people I respect. I hated to do it but there was no hope for it; I went to the information desk and did worse than ask for the book with the red cover. I casually asked if the librarian happened to know the writer's pseudonym. He didn't but he had a computer so one minute later I had the information I wanted. The book is called Heart Shaped Box and the author is Joe Hill. I started reading it while waiting to check out and I had to slam the book shut because I knew it was going to be one of those stories that's so good and so well written that once I started I wasn't going to want to stop. I had to set it aside and either take a day off or wait for the weekend. Was it worth all this embarrassment and waiting? Oh yes it was.

Heart Shaped Box is the story of Jude Coyne, middle-aged musician, who's somewhat lost touch with his music. He's a little grouchy, not very patient and doesn't have a lot of compassion for Georgia, the woman who lives with him, or his assistant Danny. What he does have is stuff. Lots and lots of stuff, the more macabre the better. He's got a trepanned skull that he uses to hold his pens. He's got a confession signed by a witch shortly before she was burned. He has all kinds of strange and creepy objects so when Danny tells him there's a ghost for sale in an online auction deciding he needs to buy it is really no decision at all.

Unfortunately, this decision, like many of the decisions Jude makes without really thinking, turns out to be a bad one. The auction states that what he's actually buying is a suit worn by the seller's stepfather, who recently died. She states that she's sure the spirit will follow the suit and that she wants to get rid of it because the ghost is scaring her child. When the suit arrives, packaged in a heart shaped box, Georgia is stuck with a pin hidden in the material. Her wound is tiny but swiftly turns into a gruesome infection that doesn't respond to treatment.

Jude sees the ghost for the first time that night, a grim, silent man sitting in a chair, and it scares him half to death. He's convinced that if the ghost notices him he'll die. He manages to sneak past it and the next morning calls the seller and is shocked to discover that the ghost isn't just any ghost; it's the ghost of Craddock McDermott, a man who worked as a hypnotist and torturer in the Vietnam War. But more than that, he's also the stepfather of a girl Jude dated that he called Florida, a girl who he sent back home to her family, a girl who is now dead. Her sister, the seller of the suit, tells Jude the girl slashed her wrists in the bathtub, the ghost is there for revenge and that "no one who gives you aid or comfort will live."

Sure enough someone dies the very next day and both Jude and Georgia are nearly killed when the hypnotic ghost enters their minds and manipulates them. Saved by his dogs and some tricks he learned growing up with an abusive father, Jude, Georgia and the dogs pile into a restored muscle car and they head off to Florida to confront the woman who sold them suit, pursued by Craddock's ghost, which happens to be driving a ghost of an old pickup truck.

Of course your mileage will vary but Heart Shaped Box gave me the willies. I ended up wandering around the house at four am checking the locks and peering out the windows whenever anyone drove down our street. We all have our fears, for some people it's snakes or spiders, and mine just happens to be not being able to trust what you see in front of you. Terminator Two was quite frightening to me because John Connor could never tell if the people he was talking to were real or the new terminator. The same thing with the film version of 1408, John Cusack's character couldn't tell if he was in the room or out of the room. Joe Hill does a splendid job creating the same doubt in Heart Shaped Box. When you're fighting against both supernatural elements and someone who has the ability to hypnotize you into just about anything what do you trust?

The author also excels at character building. If pressed, I would classify the novel as a southern gothic ghost story and when you're in that style it would be easy to slip from characters to caricatures but that's never a concern in this book. Even his dogs are well developed with some secrets that are important to the story. I particularly liked the way that Jude grows as a person. When we first meet him he's pretty much a jerk, which I suppose is not entirely surprising given that he's been a death metal superstar for thirty years with all the special treatment that entails. But as the story progresses Jude faces more than the ghost of Craddock, he faces his personal ghosts and we're able to see there's a lot more to him that bitter cynicism.

If you'd like to try before you buy you can get a taste of Joe's writing style in this creepy little story called Black Phone. It will give you a chance to see how easy his prose is, and by that I don't mean easy to write, I mean easy to read. His writing is so clear that you can immediately forget you're reading and lose yourself in the story.

One-Paragraph Review

This week's one-paragraph review is from Horrified who discusses a movie called The Unnamable, an adaptation of the Lovecraft story. "This isn't a good movie and it's not a bad movie. It's just blah. What you should do is fast forward to the end and watch the monster, a screeching, squealing creature with goat feet. It's the sissiest monster I've seen and it's the most easily wounded. Definitely good for a laugh." Have you got a one-paragraph (or smaller) review you'd like to share? Send it in to me and I'll run the most interesting ones. You can reach me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com.