Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill

As I’ve noticed previously, I took a multi-year hiatus from reading horror novels, in large part because I couldn’t separate out the gems from the trash in the new horror releases. Since I decided to blog about horror fiction, among other things, I’ve been taking another look at the current crop of horror authors, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

The most recent read I’ve undertaken is Heart-Shaped Box (2007), by Joe Hill. Hill is a newcomer to the horror field, and has only one other book, 20th Century Ghosts (2005), a collection of short stories. I’ll be picking up the latter in the near future, because Heart-Shaped Box was an excellent book that does the genre proud.

Jude Coyne is an aging, former lead and last surviving member of a classic metal band. Now he lives in an isolated home in Poughkeepsie, with two dogs as his only constant companions. He is also visited by his personal assistant Danny, who works out of Jude’s house, and also has a rolling roster of much-too-young Goth fan girls living with him, each of whom he refers to only by her home state (‘Georgia’ is living with him when the book starts).

Jude collects macabre memorabilia that fit in with his dark image and musical style: a used hangman’s noose, an authentic witch’s confession, a genuine snuff film. When Danny finds an online auction for a suit haunted by a dead man, Jude hardly thinks it over before putting in the winning bid.

He rethinks his decision, though, when he finds the dead man sitting in his upstairs hallway. Soon he finds himself being stalked relentlessly by this ghost, and must struggle for his life — and more — against a seemingly invincible adversary.

This opening premise of the novel is simple, and calls to my mind one of my favorite horror short stories of all time: The Grab Bag, by Robert Bloch and Henry Kuttner, in which a strange old man sells a bag supposedly containing a ghost. The idea held promise as a short story, but I had my doubts whether the premise could be stretched to a whole novel.

In a sense, it isn’t, because the story ventures down interesting paths, some slightly predictable, others completely unexpected. I found the book completely compelling, and finished it within a day’s intense reading.

The thing I liked the most about the book is the characters. The novel starts with a seemingly stereotypical batch: the washed-up rock star, the nihilistic groupie, the sycophantic assistant and, yes, the sinister dead man. Hill develops his characters and fills them in: by the end of the novel, we care deeply about the inevitable fates of all of them, good and bad.

The horror aspects of the novel are well done. As I’ve noted before, many horror novels lose their power when the horror is ‘explained’. Hill’s novel counteracts this by introducing new ominous aspects with each revelation: the more we learn, the more creepy the tale becomes.

I really enjoyed Heart-Shaped Box, and I’ll be keeping up with Hill’s work as he continues to write (though he doesn’t seem to be in much of a hurry, unlike other horror writers).

For those who are interested, Joe Hill has a website and a blog here.

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