Judas Coyne is a semi-retired Death Metal Superstar. The rest of his group, Jude’s Hammer, have all died, one by one, under tragic circumstances, leaving him alone in his NYC home with only his manager (Danny), his girlfriend (Georgia) & his dogs, Bon & Angus (guess who they’re named after?), for company. As well as naming his girlfriends after the State of their birth, Jude also collects macabre ephemera: a cannibal’s cookbook, a witch’s signed confession, a snuff movie, a used hangman’s noose. Jude’s love for the unnatural is legion.
Our story begins with Jude being alerted to an interesting item that has appeared for sale on an internet auction site:
“I will "sell" my stepfather's ghost to the highest bidder. . . .”
Jude places a bid of $1000 & is soon taking delivery of a musty dead man’s Johnny Cash suit that arrives via UPS in a black heart-shaped-box, but he isn’t remotely scared. Jude, you see, doesn’t do scared. He has spent years dealing with the abuse he suffered at the hands of his bullying father, wrestling with the ghosts of ex-band-mates & impressionable girlfriends no longer with him. What’s one more ghost in the life of an already haunted & troubled man?
The ghost wastes little time in turning what’s left of Jude’s life upside down. Danny is the first to fall: hanging himself, almost immediately. Before long, Jude’s position is untenable, a swathe of poltergeist activity descends on his home. The ghost is everywhere. Doffing his hat, twiddling his razor blade on its chain, smiling menacingly. Only the dogs appear to keep the ghost at bay.
It transpires that the ghost is the spirit of Florida’s father. Florida, a previous girlfriend, had been dismissed from the court of Judas Coyne & returned homeward-bound some time ago, and had later taken her own life to escape her pain, the pain that Jude had caused her!
The ghost, a hypnotist, medium & bully before his death, appears to have carried many of his skills over to the grave. The ghost’s will gradually becomes clear: his intension is to drive Jude to suicide, just like his daughter.
As the house descends into chaos, Jude, Georgia (already showing signs of sharing her body with Florida), Bon & Scott clamber aboard the Mustang & set off in search of a solution to this most pressing of inconveniences . . . Can they succeed in contacting the spirit of Florida? Will she have the power to call of the old man? Was her death suicide after all?
Joe Hill’s debut novel is billed as horror, but reads like a thriller! The characters are believable, instantly likeable & above all, credible. The synopsis is pregnant with possibility: if you think for one moment that “Heart-Shaped Box” is a one trick pony, think again, my friend, think again.
One of the most overwrought clichés in the history of literary appraisal has got to be the page turning analogy: “I couldn’t put it down”/”One page led to another”, etc. I hate to say it, but in the case of “Heart-Shaped Box”, the cliché fits like a glove, albeit one of those leather ones covered in spikes like the guys out of Entombed wear. I read this book in 3-sittings, in less than as many days. For me, that’s pretty quick. I should check that out with Ross & Norris.
Throughout, Hill’s prose is sharp, taught, witty & atmospheric. You find yourself looking ahead of the text, subliminally searching out anything in italics that may signal the return of the ghost, or some other demonic interface. Like the plot of any classic episode of Black Adder, Hill has a cunning plan to keep your eyes glued to his pages.
Guy Debored – tMx 29 – 04/07