Heart-Shaped Box

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box Cover

Heart-Shaped Box


Joe Hill is definitely on my 'read everything by this guy' list. Earlier this year I read '20th Century Ghosts' which was my introduction to his work which I absolutely love. This book had been sat on my wife's shelf in the meantime and I thought I'm going to have to dip into this one too.

The central characters are a bit of a departure from what I'd nominally expect. Judas Coyne is a middle aged death metal star who has a collection of macabre items from a signed witches confession to a cannibal's cook book but more troublingly an authentic snuff film. He lives with his current partner Georgia, a 20 something Goth and their lives change when Coyne's assistant sees a ghost for sale in an online auction. Unfortunately for Judas and Georgia this ghost is malevolent and is out for revenge!

What follows is a haunted house / road trip which is at times frightening, relentless and gory. The early part of the novel, really before the ghost turns up is kind of boring but once the action kicks in the book is a real page turner. The pacing just works and the short chapters lend themselves well to the story as the reader can stay with Judas and Georgia as they stay one step ahead of the ghost.

The characterisation in the novel is pretty decent. I struggled to find Coyne believable at first and I guess it was because I used to listen to a fair bit of death metal in the early 90's. I struggled to find an appropriate comparison - someone who was active in bands in the 70's, part of the early 90's death metal explosion and then still relevant and exceptionally wealthy when the new century arrived. I felt Coyne would have crossed many genres and decades and perhaps the nearest person one could compare him to would be Ozzy Osbourne. I'm nitpicking because death metal wasn't big enough to support one of Ozzy's stature...

Coyne comes across as someone pretty unpleasant and his collection and music seem to suit him. I guess I wanted to like him from the start and the fact I didn't suggests Hill has done a good job of characterising him as a soulless, selfish human. Initially we only see Georgia really through his eyes, a former stripper walking around in her underwear with the requisite piercings and tattoos etc. She is portrayed as an object, as disposable, indeed Coyne calls his 20-something girlfriends by the state they are from. It dehumanises her, treats her as a groupie, a temporary entertainment. Once the novel kick into gear though the layers beneath the image of both Georgia and Jude are peeled away and we see their heart, humanity and soul. Neither are the self-centred product they portray. Georgia is no longer someone to have sex with but a woman with thoughts, feelings and power. Jude's exterior crumbles and underneath is a man of compassion By the end of the novel I cared for them both.

Craddock, the ghost is amazing. He is just plain evil. The early scenes in the house were he first makes his appearance are really spooky. Craddock is just so threatening and evil. He haunts the house, he follows them outside, he gets inside the characters minds. He wants to hurt and cause pain. I won't go into his motives in order to remain spoiler free but I guess the key themes for me are finding light out of darkness, relationships with fathers, surviving abuse, even finding good in the world. Some of the themes may seem a bit cliché and by the numbers but generally speaking this is a good horror story.

I appreciated the nods to rock culture (the dogs Bon and Angus are fully developed in their own right) and the impact of rock and roll excess is there for all to see. Definitely enjoyed this one.