Horror is back! It never really went away, but once more we're
starting to see some mainstream attention being paid to the genre.
Last year, Alexandra Sokoloff's THE HARROWING brought renewed hope
to fans of horror fiction, and now we have HEART-SHAPED BOX, Joe
Hill's debut novel. Hill has achieved some notoriety in the
short-story field thanks to a collection he published abroad called
20th CENTURY GHOSTS. But none of that will prepare you for this
work, which transcends the horror genre even as it scares the heck
out of you.
Rock superstar Judas Coyne (nice play on words there) is in the
twilight of a brilliant career, living a somewhat jaded existence
that is intermittently and temporarily relieved by his mementos of
lost souls. He has quite an interesting collection --- a witch's
confession, a gently used noose and some other dreadfuls --- and
more money than God. When he receives an email solicitation to
participate in an Internet auction on a ghost, he jumps at the
chance and, of course, winds up buying it. It's not a particularly
engaging concept when initially summarized, but just wait. You'll
be hooked by page two anyway!
Coyne is quite an interesting character, with or without a haunt in
the closet. He's an emotional abuser, aloof and full of contempt
and anger, and seemingly unable to form a relationship with any
woman more than half his age. Difficult childhood notwithstanding,
his only redeeming social value is that he is extremely fond of Bon
and Angus, his German Shepherds. But the ghost he has purchased,
and to which he is now irrevocably linked, is much worse than he
is, and has a major mad-on for him.
A great deal of the story consists of Coyne and his girlfriend
Marybeth --- code-named Georgia in Coyne-speak --- trying to shake
off the ghost, with terrifying and unsuccessful results as they
race from his home in New York, down to the ghost's origins in
Florida's backwoods panhandle. Along the way, it is amazing how
Hill --- even as he is terrifying his reader --- slowly transforms
his protagonist into something bearing the resemblance of a likable
guy, ultimately succeeding in a vignette that is simultaneously
frightening and heart-rending.
Rest assured, however, HEART-SHAPED BOX contains much more of the
former than the latter. There is one point in the narrative in
which Coyne, on the run from the spirit even as he tracks it to its
source, checks his home voicemail. I noticed, at about the third
message, that I was rocking forward and backward in my chair. If an
author's prose sets off automatic tremors in me at this late point
in my life, then the author is getting the job done. And Hill does
just that, in spades. By the time Coyne confronts his ghost ---
actually his ghosts of past and present --- you'll be exhausted.
And maybe in love with a Goth woman, too, but that is a whole other
side to the novel that you'll have to discover on your own.
HEART-SHAPED BOX is one of those rare works that is career- and
genre-defining, all by its lonesome. If Hill never writes another
book --- though I have the feeling he will --- he'll be remembered
forever for this one. All hail the new King.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011