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Heart-Shaped Box

by Joe Hill

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating
User Rating 5 Star Rating (2 Reviews)

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Heart-Shaped Box
Readers who enjoy frightening themselves will enjoy Joe Hill's debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box. The plot suffers from some holes, the writing is invisible more than it is literary, and the story depends upon cheap sentimentalism-but taken together it's still stunningly effective, even if you know exactly what to expect. All of which raises one question: how exactly does that work?

Near the end of the book, Joe Hill shares a rough definition of horror: "Horror was rooted in sympathy, after all, in understanding what it would be like to suffer the worst." (pp. 306-307) This theory provides a key to the transformation of horror writing from a cramped, obscure genre aimed largely at teenage boys to the driving force behind blockbuster authors including Stephen King, Clive Barker, and if this novel is any clue, Joe Hill.

Most modern Horror writers trace their roots to H. P. Lovecraft, a short story writer for the pulp magazines in the early part of last century. Hill has read his Lovecraft-there's a sly reference on page 48, wherein the works of Charles Dexter Ward (a character from a Lovecraft story) make an appearance in semi-retired rock star Judas Coyne's personal library.

Unlike Hill, Lovecraft believed that horror wasn't rooted in sympathy, but in antipathy. He opens his classic essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature," a survey of the field, by stating that "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."
Modern readers may be distressed by Lovecraft's racially-charged stories, which tend to feature many "degenerate" creatures, half-human and half-fish, or the product of generations of inbreeding. Contemporary horror writers, even those who claim Lovecraft as a source, tend to avoid tales of incomprehensible cosmic forces, and instead concentrate on the shadow, in Jung's sense-the darkness within us, that we identify and suppress, often with negative consequences. In horror tales and ghost stories, suppressing the darkness within always leads to negative consequences.

Stephen King's Carrie remains the canonical example of such a tale, wherein the ordinary insults and terrors of adolescence take on monstrous form. In this sense, modern horror writing is supremely moralistic: what most separates contemporary horror from Lovecraft's pulp is our ability to empathize with its protagonists, and the greatest triumph of the modern genre's champions is their ability to make us recognize ourselves in the heroes of these tales no matter how unlikely their circumstances: ordinary people, driven to extraordinary lengths in the battle for good to overcome evil.

As moral tales, these stories require an imperfect hero, someone who has sinned. Enter Judas Coyne, former lead singer for a heavy metal band that has relied on the occult as part of its stage show and imagery, if nothing else. It may have been an act, but Jude has a library of creepy gifts from fans, including a snuff film, possession of which indirectly ended his marriage several years before the story begins.
In promotional materials, Joe Hill describes Jude as "morally adrift." In his mid-fifties, Jude lives with a twenty-something gothic ex-stripper, full of piercings and attitude. Jude calls her Georgia after her home state, to keep her in her place, though her real name is Marybeth and her stage name was Morphine. Given that this is a morality tale, it should be no surprise that Georgia was sexually abused as a child and has both a heart of gold and a will of iron. Jude does too, despite his gruff exterior, his rough childhood, and his two German Shepherds named Bon and Angus, just one of the many heavy metal references that Joe Hill works into the story.

If the aging baddie with a daddy problem and his hot, tough-as-nails girlfriend don't strike the reader as stock characters, neither will the rest of the cast: the ingratiating assistant who just wants to be loved, for example, who asks Jude if he wishes to buy, via Internet auction, a ghost. Jude does, and in the mail comes the suit to which the dead man is attached.

No reader should be surprised that Jude gets more than he bargained for with the suit, that Jude's daddy issues get worked out in an unconventional fashion, or that in some sense Jude can be said to have redeemed himself. What might surprise readers is how well all of this works, even though there's nothing new here. (Even the ghost-for-sale-on-Internet-Auction-site idea isn't new; the [link url=http://www.andrew.cmu.edu/user/rubyc/eBay_dibbuk.htm]Dibbuk Box made a splash on eBay three years ago.)
What, then, makes this story work? What makes it genuinely creepy? In no small part, the story works because Joe Hill is an excellent writer and storyteller. The pacing works: most of the time, it's easy for the reader to imagine that he or she is half a step ahead of the story, but this builds anticipation and dread. And, even when the reader thinks he or she has the pieces figured out, there's always the question, "what happens next?" Even when you know where Heart-Shaped Box is going, it still carries you along for the ride. Similarly, Hill alternates intense scenes of the supernatural with spaces where the reader can relax, and let his or her guard down, so as to be lulled into the next fright. As makers of horror movies from Alien to Arachnophobia know, terror works best when alternating with laughter.

Hill also draws the reader in with a wealth of detail, including arresting visual detail:

The dead man was sitting two-thirds of the way down the corridor, in the Shaker chair on the left, his head lowered in thought. A drape of morning sunshine fell across where his legs should have been. They disappeared where they passed into the light. It gave him the look of a war veteran, his trousers ending in stumps, midway down his thighs. Below this splash of sunshine were his polished black loafers, with his black-stockinged feet stuck in them. Between his thighs and his shoes, the only legs that were visible were the legs of the chair, the wood a lustrous blond in the light. (p. 54)
User Reviews

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 5 out of 5
Excellent Read, Member AlexIsOnFire19

I read this book in 48 hours I was so hooked! great!

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