Jude could believe in a ghost but not a boogeyman, a pure incarnation of evil. There had to be more to the dead man than black marks over his eyes and a curved razor on a golden chain.
Joe Hill’s first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, begins with a first-rate and timely premise for a ghost story. An out-to-pasture death-metal rock star with a penchant for occult objects — drawings by John Wayne Gacy, a snuff film — bids on the internet for a ghost and wins it. What arrives in the mail is the suit of a dead man, packed in the heart-shaped box of the title. Of course, what seemed a lark to Jude Coyne turns out to be the real deal: a veritable ghost, of the mean variety, attaches himself to Jude and starts to wreak havoc.
All this happens in the first few chapters of the book, and pace, at least at the beginning, is one of Hill’s strong suits. He is smart enough to grab you early with the promise of malevolence, and he creates a memorable, original protagonist in Jude (picture a more coherent Ozzy without the family), a man who is content to ride out his residuals and fame in a secluded farmhouse in the country. Jude is supported by an over-eager assistant he can’t stand, and Georgia, the latest in a string of much younger Goth girlfriends.
The first, and scariest, half of the book takes place on the farm, as the ghost makes its power, and its purpose, known. There are many twists, and detours, along the way, and I won’t wreck the read for you by outlining them. I will say that the second half of the proceedings takes some of the characters on the road, and the book loses steam the farther it gets from the confines of the farmhouse. But there are some real jolts in many of the earlier set-pieces, and Hill knows how to marry a good old-fashioned ghost to some 21st century technology, not just an internet auction, but e-mails, cell-phone calls, and satellite radios.
The continuing popularity of the ghost story, in all its mediums, must have something to do with its unique ability to unnerve us — the readers, or listeners, or viewers — while simultaneously reassuring us. That the dead can return, for revenge or to offer guidance, provides both the terror of the unknown, and the proof we all crave that there is, indeed, a realm beyond death.
The most popular ghost tales — A Christmas Carol, The Sixth Sense –offer both scares and comfort. Heart-Shaped Box treads this road, as well. Not only are its characters given privileged access to the afterworld, their encounters with it, violent as they are, make them better human beings.
Jude and his girlfriend are not particularly likeable heroes at the outset of the novel, but as we learn more about their past, and as the present forces them into a tighter and tighter box, they grow on us, and each other. Heart-Shaped Box turns out to be, above all else, a second-chance love story.
Jude and Georgia, and their fates, are really the only reason for turning the pages after the story starts to lose its urgency, delving into flashback sequences and over-exposition. It’s not uncommon for ghost stories to lose steam as they progress; what is suggestive and spine-tingling in the early reveals of the spirit world, tends to lose its power to scare as those spirits become more explicitly revealed. And by the end of Heart-Shaped Box, the reader knows far too much about the ghostly antagonist for him to provide any more genuine surprises.
Some of the stylistic elements in Hill’s book — the sentimentalized protagonists, the slangy vernacular (hork instead of vomit), the one-sentence chapter — smack a little too much of the world’s most famous horror novelist, Stephen King. This would be worth pointing out even if Hill did not happen to be Stephen King’s son. But Hill does happen to be King’s son, and he’s taken up his father’s trade, and also his genre of choice, and while he’s clearly inherited the ability to spin a good yarn, it might be in his best interest to put a little distance between himself and dad in any future novels. Stylistically, at least.
The family connection, in the end, doesn’t truly matter because Hill has a good story to tell, one that makes the pages turn, and whether he’s derivative, or arguably born with a silver agent at the end of his telephone line, doesn’t change that fact. Good stories are good stories. Here’s hoping Hill’s next effort begins with as promising a premise as he has in Heart-Shaped Box, and here’s also hoping that he’s able to sustain the narrative through the whole book, and not just most of it.