Sunday, August 8, 2010
Review: Heart Shaped Box, by Joe Hill
"Middle-aged rock star Judas Coyne collects morbid curios for fun, so doesn't think twice about buying a suit advertised at an online auction site as haunted by its dead owner's ghost. Only after it arrives does Judas discover that the suit belonged to Craddock McDermott, the stepfather of one of Coyne's discarded groupies, and that the old man's ghost is a malignant spirit determined to kill Judas in revenge for his stepdaughter's suicide."
-amazon.com product page
There have been only two books in my life that have scared me. I mean really, sleep with the lights on, jump at small noises scared me. The first, when I was about 11, was a picture book by Cary Crew called The Watertower. Now when I say picture book I'm not talking the Very Hungry Caterpillar. The Watertower was set in a dusty little Austrian town where all the residents except for two oblivious young boys are being controlled by an alien which resembled a kind of giant rake. The second book to terrify me is a little more well known, Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves which I read when I was fifteen. This book is a pure post-modern mindfuck which revolves, in part, around a house which randomly sprouts winding maze like passages.
I actually think I'm a pretty hard bird to scare, but what does scare me is a subtle kind of horror that make most roll their eyes in non-terror. In The Watertower it wasn't the eventual revelation of the rake alien that scared me, it was the way you could just make it out lurking in the background on almost every page. Partly obscured by a tree, or in the reflection of a window it waited. You didn't even notice it at first, a lot of people probably didn't notice it at all, but we had the book read to us by the author and he pointed it out. Yeah, thanks a lot Gary Crew. What scared me so soundly about House of Leaves is harder to pin down, I can only guess that it was some potent combination of the dark unknown and being lost in the safest place on earth, your own house. I'd also bet that the point in my life in which I read it played a big role, but we'll get into that when I inevitably review this book. (Which I will, because it's amazing).
My point is, that what scares me most is what happens ofscreen, or out of the corner of your eye. I was probably the only person on the planet to b generally freaked out by the Blair WitchProject, for example. Although no film comes close to scaring me like the above books did, and after reading the first chunk of Joe Hill's Heart Shaped Box, I was preparing to add that one to the list as well. But then I kept reading.
So, aged death metal rocker Jude buys a haunted suit off the internet in the first few pages, it arrives the page after and the haunting commences almost immediately. And boy, was it my kind of haunting. There's a scene where Jude enters a room where a radio is playing, except hey, he's pretty sure it was off before... That's not the scary part, the scary part is where the DJ is talking about the weather and he's all 'it's going to be a cold one this week folk and you will die and it looks like rain...' See that little 'you will die' tucked away in there? Yeah, it's little things like that get under my skin.
Unfortunately Hill abandons all subtlety pretty early on, and his ghost quickly evolves from creepy radio manipulator ghost into a Freddy Kruger knock off. He becomes corporeal and starts whispering not so sweet nothings in Jude's ear and trying to run him over with his ghost car. Some might find this scary, but not me. By the end of the book the horror became almost b-grade in its depiction, and I can't believe that anyone would find it genuinely scary, even if they weren't as weird as me.
But what saved the book for me was the one thing that kept me from buying it for so long. I remember seeing this thing on the shelf back when I lived in city, before anyone knew that Jow Hill had a famous author dad (Stephen someone, I think...) The cover quote by Neil Gaiman (another author who knows how to creep me the fuck out. That scene in of the early Sandman issues, set in the cafe where everyone starts devolving? Man...) made me pick it up time and again, but the back blurb always made me put it back. There was just nothing appealing to me about a washed up death metal rockstar that the back cover promised.
Except Jude is not washed up. Past his prime and no longer releasing music, sure. But I was expecting a pathetic Ozzy Osbourne kind of character, but Jude still has his dignity. He's still relevant, his absence from the scene is by choice. We learn that two of his bandmates died recently, and it's clear that grief has effected him strongly and laid waste to some of his living relationships. He's also a cold son of a bitch with a healthy dose of contempt for those around him, even (or should I say especially) the young women he sleeps with.
What kept me reading what not the increasingly ridiculous actions of the ghost with a personal vendetta against Jude, but rather is was watching Jude and his current lady friend grow into people who you actually wanted to come out on top. I also enjoyed the backstory of the ghost and why it was after Jude personally, and I honestly found the reveletions of what the ghost had done when he was still a man to be more upsetting then his ghostly hauntings. There is also a strong theme of regret running through the book, and the idea that past can't be changed, only accepted.
As a work of horror I would have to say that this book fails, and fails hard. But for me it succeeded in every other way, and it delivered to me everything I want in a book and upon finishing it I was honestly sad to say good-bye to the characters, alive and dead. (Plus, the ending was both satisfying and fitting, which is more than I can usually say for the kid's dad...)
How did I get this book? Purchased second hand