Title: Heart-Shaped Box
Author: Joe Hill
Publisher: Gollancz/William Morrow
Release Date: March 2007
Reviewed by: Ankush Trakru
Buy from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com
It would seem extraneously silly to review Heart-Shaped Box. The book came out in 2007. It’s won the Bram Stoker award. The reviews are staggering; 397 aggregated voices have declared it 4/5. The gold standard for bestsellers; the NYT has done it. It’s got blurbs from Harlan Coben & Scott Smith. Heck, even old grandpa Google is no slouch.
In part this is my fiendish plot; I really want you to read Horns, released in 2010, by the very same guy. But before you do that, I want you to feel your skin crawling up your back. I want you to whimper, caught between reading & not reading. That feeling of when you were a kid and watched horror movies with one eye shut & the body firmly ensconced in the embrace of the comforter or your mummy. Remember the time when the dark corridors of your house were the dreaded pathways for vengeful spirits.
Joe Hill is just that good
Heart-shaped box is a ghost story. That’s probably just the way The Exorcist is a horror movie. No reviewer can convey the trapped visceral sense of terror that both evoke. They’re both simple horror stories, the hand of God lies light on both plots except that the movie is more of a Church & Demon story while the book is more of the traditional chase between quarry & hunter.
I think this much shadowplay should be enough :) No spoilers (either in text or links) follow
For such a rock-star book, the protagonist of Heart-shaped box is unsurprisingly, a rock star himself; Judas Coyne. For the trivia hobbyists, that’s like three Hard/Alt Rock references in one sentence; Nirvana Single from 1993-94 (Heart-shaped box), Judas from Judas Priest & Coyne from Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips (the last one’s a wiki reference). Throughout the book there are several references to Alt/Hard/Punk/Country/Metal music. More music references can be found here.
Our fictional Mr. Coyne is quite a morbid collector of things; part of which is his play at his image of being a Metal artist and part of which is the usual eccentric hobbies that famous people tend to pick up. So when he gets an option to buy a dead man’s suit with a guaranteed poltergeist, he takes it up. This suit arrives in a heart-shaped box. Handling the suit, his girlfriend pricks herself on the finger, drawing blood, and with that little incident, the misfortunes begin. Turns out that the suit is haunted by the ghost of the father of a dead ex-girlfriend whose family is blaming her suicide on guess who. This clearly cannot go well from here and it doesn’t.
It starts from little things. Little nudges and cuts. The poltergeist was a hypnotist when alive. He’s a better hypnotist when dead. And from the time he wakes up, Judas’ days are numbered. From what we’re told in the beginning, the ghost wants Judas to suffer in just the same way that his daughter suffered just before killing herself. So, there are incidents that start happening; Incidents which involve him, his newest girlfriend and his two dogs. To get away from it all, these 2 people decide to go to the place where the box came from, and the ghost follows.
That is perilously close to admitting as much as I can, before revealing the entire plot. Needless to add, there’s is more than what meets the eye and in spite of the fact that Judas does not seem to be a character one can relate to at first sight, you’ll be happy you persevered with him, but then that’s why you need to read the book, right? ;)
Reading the book is a wringer. Back when you think Judas is an emotionless jerk, you feel bad for what is happening. Later when the music comes through and you feel more warmly towards him, you wish for it all to stop. Towards the end, you’re genuinely rooting for a happy ending even though none seems forthcoming. There is a moral play involved, but hey, this is high fantasy (horror?) not high literature. There’s enough plotting & talking in there for this to be enjoyable, but not enough if you’re looking for a deep discussion on what is evil and how does good work. The ending is neat and tidy and you’re happy at the end that the ordeal is over.
I remember starting the discussion on the note that you really should read Horns, and Heart-shaped box is just an entrée’ into Joe Hill’s work. While those two books are NOT related at all, what will be familiar to readers is that suffocating feeling of helplessness, being at the mercy of the author while watching terrible things being done to characters that we love so much. What will also be familiar will be the cloying feeling of oppression, that fluttering of heartstrings and that absolute sense of opprobrium.
Damn that Joe Hill, he can give me a coronary pretty much anytime he wants
About Ankush TrakruThe Reviewer is a multi-skilled multi-cellular biped macro-organism & the blood descendant of the triumphant race of Cro-Magnon man. Alas, while he’s just as intelligent, he hasn't inherited the ability to create frescoes in dim-lit caves. Apart from this, he also works & blogs like any other monkey and generally loves operating slightly on the right of being obfuscatious. Sometimes he fiddles around with a tightly wound 6-string instrument as well.