"Heart-Shaped Box" by Joe Hill
Updated: Jul 15, 2019
"Judas Coyne is a collector of the macabre: a cookbook for cannibals... a used hangman's noose... a snuff film. An aging death-metal rock god, his taste for the unnatural is as widely known to his legions of fans as the notorious excesses of his youth. But nothing he possesses is as unlikely or as dreadful as his latest discovery, an item for sale on the Internet, a thing so terribly strange, Jude can't help but reach for his wallet. 'I will 'sell' my stepfather's ghost to the highest bidder...' For a thousand dollars, Jude will become the proud owner of a dead man's suit, said to be haunted by a restless spirit. He isn't afraid. He has spent a lifetime coping with ghosts- - - of an abusive father, of the lovers he callously abandoned, of the band-mates he betrayed. What's one more? But what UPS delivers to his door in a black heart-shaped box is no imaginary or metaphorical ghost, no benign conversation piece. It's the real thing. And suddenly the suit's previous owner is everywhere: behind the bedroom door... seated in Jude's restored vintage Mustang... standing outside his window... staring out from his widescreen TV. Waiting- - - with a gleaming razor blade on a chain dangling from one bony hand..."
Which one of us hasn't imagined being a successful rock star? The main character of this novel is an aging one, who has become the stereo-typical hard-ass that is expected of a death metal rock star. We begin with Judas Coyne, who hasn't made an album in years, and who is constantly running from his past- - -a habit he acquired when he ran away from home in Louisiana at the age of 19, and this is the problem that permeates Hill's 'Heart-Shaped Box.'
'Heart-Shaped Box' does a successful job of not only painting a picture of ghosts, but also of the spirits that reside in animals (like a witch's familiar), but the likable characters in this book are few and far between. Coyne treats women as objects(he literally only calls them by the State name they are from,such as Florida), and also ended his own marriage by refusing to throw away a snuff film he had obtained from a police. When the story begins, Coyne is shacked up with a young woman (nearly 30 years younger) he calls Georgia; she is described as a stereo-typical goth: black hair, black nail polish, pale white skin. This description of the women Coyne has been with seem to be about the same, but maybe a different hair color, but any other woman that is ever mentioned in the book is either very old or very overweight.
Coyne, a collector of all things dark, buys a dead man's suit that is supposedly haunted by a woman's deceased stepfather. Quite quickly things begin to happen after the suit arrives, including a decaying smell, first noticed by Coyne's 'girlfriend,' Georgia: " I know. I was wondering if there was something in one of the pockets. Something going bad. Old food." She makes Coyne take a look at the suit to see if there is something dead inside of it, but he never finds the source of the smell. Instead, he finds a picture of a young girl in one of the pockets, a girl that is very familiar to Coyne, a girl he once called 'Florida.'
Coyne doesn't seem to take any of the signs seriously that he may be haunted by a ghost that wants to harm him and anyone who comes in contact with him. Until Coyne finds himself sitting inside his restored vintage Mustang in a closed-off barn: " He snorted softly to himself. It wasn't selling souls that got you into trouble, it was buying them. Next time he would have to make sure there was a return policy. He laughed, opened his eyes a little. The dead man, Craddock, sat in the passenger seat next to him. He smiled at Jude, to show stained teeth and a black tongue. He smelled of death, also of car exhaust. His eyes were hidden behind those odd, continuously moving black brushstrokes."
Craddock turns out to be, without giving too much away, a man who was a spiritualist in his living life. He wants nothing but pain and misery for Coyne, who happened to kick his young step daughter to the curb a year before. The parts of the story that deal with both Coyne and Craddock interacting are the most interesting ones. Without these interactions, the story would have fallen very short.
That said, 'Heart-Shaped Box' had quite a few faults to it. Readers may notice that some pages contradict themselves on the very next page, Hill's overuse of Georgia's bangs (hair) as a description for all of her facial expressions, also Hill's habit of being repetitive with words that he uses to describe most things, the unbelievable part where Coyne- - - a collector of occult items- - - claims he has never used a Ouija board before (and lacks the knowledge of how to use one), and last but not least, chapter 34, a chapter that was not needed and completely stopped the story in it's tracks.
And speaking of things that were not needed in the story- - - a part where Georgia has a gun in her mouth, ready to commit suicide, Coyne can only think to remove the gun and replace it with his penis. I understand that Hill may have been going for unlikable characters from the beginning, to really have Coyne play the part of a jaded man, but sometimes Hill seems to go too far. Every book has to have a character to root for, otherwise your readers will put the book down, luckily, this book has Bammy; she is Georgia's grandmother, unfortunately, in less than 15 pages, she never appears in the story again. "You strung out? Christ. You smell like a dog." Bammy says to Georgia after she and Coyne show up at her home.
Is this book a good ghost story, yes, is this story a great horror story, no. Hill lacks on likable characters enough that I don't think a lot of people could enjoy this book. If I were to recommend it, I wouldn't recommend it to teenagers because of a much talked about snuff film, drugs and suicide. I don't think I would read this again.