Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill

Morrow, 2007, 374 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-114793-7

A lot of people think it’s easy to write a horror novel. Just grab a disgusting monster, sick it on unsuspecting characters and let the deaths pile up. But that’s the kind of assumption that leads to formulaic extruded product and exactly the kind of thinking that practically destroyed horror as a genre publishing category in the early nineties. The monster-kills-people type of horror is only the easiest story the genre can tell, and the best examples of the genres manage to do a lot more than that.

Joe Hill’s debut Heart-Shaped Box is exactly the kind of novel that the horror genre should aspire to: It’s recognizably a horror story (what with a vengeful ghost and all), but it uses the framework of an implacable menace to take its characters on a deeper journey of self-discovery. Along the way, it touches upon other sub-genres: It’s a rock-and-roll novel, a road novel and a southern gothic family tragedy.

It starts off with a strong lead character, a heavy-metal icon way past his prime living out a quiet life in upstate New York. After years on tour, Judas Coyne has settled for semi-retirement, collecting disposable girlfriends and macabre mementos. All harmless enough, until -one day- Judas end up buying a ghost on-line, and having it delivered to his house. Unlike most eBay hoaxes, this one is for real, and it has a very personal issue to settle with Judas.

Heart-Shaped Box being a novel rather than a short story, getting rid of the ghost will take more than burning up his suit and taking to the road: As Judas discovers alongside a girlfriend who proves less disposable than he thought, the road to the ghost’s secrets is leading them south, to Florida and then to Louisiana, where Judas’ family lives. There are many terrifying moments along the way, and considerable personal injury.

But what raises Heart-Shaped Box above the usual horror schlock-fests are the ways in which it ties itself and its horrors to deeper human concerns. Judas may be stuck with a vengeful ghost who simply wants him dead, but the story ties up Judas’ own worst excesses, the sordid history of another family, his complicated relationship with his girlfriend and the broken ties with his own parents. Hill is able to blend all of those elements together without seeming too mechanistic or deliberate about it, and the way the novel gradually moves on to a bigger canvas than just a horror story is part of the book’s delight.

Lest this review launches itself in incomprehensible praise about “the human spirit” of the novel, it should also point out that this is a wonderfully readable and entertaining piece of work. Hill’s invention keeps things going, and his ability to set his horror in believable contemporary American location (including Denny’s restaurants) seems effortless, yet escapes a lot of other horror writers.

In short, it’s a pretty fascinating debut from a bright young light of the horror genre. Shortly after the publication of the novel, it was revealed that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son, and while the revelation add little to the book’s already striking qualities, it does highlight that Hill’s ability to mix the mundane and the supernatural, to use familiar elements of American culture to strengthen the horrific aspects of his story are indeed reminiscent of King’s best work. Still, Hill is already forging himself a distinct reputation: his work is solid, and readers will have a hard time waiting for his next novel.

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