Title: Heart-Shaped Box
Author: Joe Hill
Hardcover: 365 pages
Publisher: Gollancz; Airport Edition, (15 Mar 2007)
Copy: Bought myself
When Jude Coyne heard someone was selling a ghost on the internet, there was no question what he was going to do. It was perfect for his collection of the macabre and the grotesque: the cannibal’s cookbook, the witch’s confession, the authentic snuff movie. As an aging death-metal-rock-god, buying a ghost almost qualifies as a business expense.
Besides, Jude thinks he knows all about ghosts. Jude has been haunted for years… by the spirits of bandmates dead and gone, the spectre of the abusive father he fled as a child, and the memory of the girl he abandoned, who killed herself. But this ghost is different. Delivered to his doorstep in a black heart-shaped box, the latest edition to Jude’s collection makes the house feel cold. It makes the dogs bark. And it means to chase Jude from his home and make him run for his life…
Faded rock star Jude Coyne (I kept thinking Marilyn Manson throughout) is basically a grumpy middle-aged man rattling around in his large ranch house with his assistant Danny, his dogs and his latest girlfriend. He is jaded, bored and without focus. His former bandmates have either died or moved on, and he has a succession of relationships with younger goth-girl types, whom he calls after the state in which he picked them up. But when his assistant receives an email about a ghost for sale on the internet, Jude has to have it to add to his suitably clichéd rock star collection of ‘weird’ things. It arrives – in a heart-shaped box - and this is where the fun begins… this ghost is for real!
The first 120 or so pages are an exciting read. The plot is set, the characters introduced and the creepiness builds. I enjoyed Joe Hill’s sometimes humorous style and was getting into my stride when things fell apart a bit. Overlong character histories slowed the pace down considerably and detracted from the plot. I found myself getting bored but just as I was thinking about giving up, having lost interest in Jude, a plot twist sucked me back in and I quite happily read Heart-Shaped Box through to its conclusion.
Having read some of Joe Hill’s short stories I was looking forward to his debut novel. What soon became clear is that Heart-Shaped Box most definitely is a promising start to a writing career. It is not perfect, indeed the middle third is at times like wading through treacle, but the plot is strong and the characterisation is good. Jude is no more likeable at the end of the book than he is at the beginning, but at least he knows why he is like he is. An anti-hero of sorts, he runs away from the present only to find his past catching up with him. The ghost, on the other hand, is very, very creepy. He manipulates the minds of others and you certainly would not want Craddock McDermott haunting your dreams. Georgia’s progression to Marybeth is well done and I found her to be the most likeable character in the book.
Overall, Heart-Shaped Box is a book of thirds; a strong introduction, dragging middle and satisfying conclusion. Inevitably there are comparisons to the master of popular horror fiction - and the author’s father - Stephen King, but I think this is unfair despite both writing in the same genre. Joe Hill has a modern voice, one with room to develop. His writing style is a little inconsistent here but that, I think, is something that will come in time. Certainly I am looking forward to reading Horns, his second novel.