[Review] Heart-Shaped Box

Heart Shaped Box (cover)

My first thought upon starting this book was “dang, this boy knows how to write!” He also knows his horror. One could blame it on his genes, I suppose, but that would be denying the skill and hard work involved in creating this book in the first place.

This is the story of Judas Coyne (and only now that I type that do I get the pun ::shakes head sadly::) otherwise known as Jude. An aging rocker who apparently thinks black isn’t dark enough, he’d have been Goth in another life except he lacks the fashion sense and emotionality. Jaded and curmudgeonly, he basically avoids most of the world in favor of his farmhouse and dogs. The exceptions to this are his personal assistant Danny and his groupie girlfriend.

Jude goes through groupie girls the way most folks go through socks, and with about as much connection to them. He calls his girls by their state of origin; the girlfriend du jour at the opening of the book is Georgia (which she accepts, in part to separate herself from her past as Marybeth). It is something he recognizes, vaguely, as being wrong, but it takes most of the book to recognize these women as individuals.

The plot opens with, of all things, an eBay auction. Jude loves to collect death-related items, and this one is just too perfect to pass up: the suit of a dead man, ghost included. He has his assistant purchase the item (because of course he hates computers, too) and promptly forgets about it until a heart-shaped box shows up on his doorstep, containing his prize.

This is a horror novel, so of course the suit really is haunted, and the ghost hates him with a passion beyond life itself. Why is a puzzle to both the reader and Jude himself, until he contacts the lady who sold him the suit. She is, to put it bluntly, batsh*t insane. She set all this up so that Jude would in fact be haunted out of his mind (and life). 

You see, a previous groupie girl of Jude’s, known to him as Florida, was this lady’s sister. I say was because Florida committed suicide and Sis blames it on Jude. Apparently so does their stepdad, who is our suit’s vengeful inhabitant. Cue gloomy specters and things moving of their own will and other ghostly tricks, which Jude tries to pass off as just his imagination. That is, until his assistant runs off and Georgia admits to seeing things, too.

Ghost Daddy used to be a hypnotist when alive, and he does some nasty things to both Jude and Georgia, like trying to talk them into killing each other (or themselves) as well as the usual poltergeist action. Getting rid of the suit won’t work, as they discover: the curse is now bound to Jude himself.

In the process of trying to escape Ghost Daddy , they discover he doesn’t like Jude’s dogs (and the feeling is mutual). Ultimately, humans and canines abandon the farmhouse in New York and head to Florida to find out if Crazy Sis knows of an off switch for Ghost Daddy. On the way they both come to terms with their histories and each other; tellingly, Georgia starts to morph into Marybeth, both for Jude and for herself, finding the person that she’d locked away. And then they arrive at Crazy Sis’ house and find out there are worse things than being targeted by a manipulative spirit.

There’s dozens of stereotypes and tropes in this story; horror as a genre tends to be stereotype-heavy, as there’s only so many types of evil critter out there. The trick is to elide the stereotype-ness of elements by giving them “personality,” so to speak. And, as I mentioned, the stereotypes are almost impossible to ignore when introduced; that said, I believe at least part of the author’s intent was to use this obviousness in service to his story.

All the characters could easily have turned into sketches; luckily, they have far more depth than initially expected. Every major character fleshes out as the story goes on, even Ghost Daddy and the dear departed Florida. The one who gets the least personality, I think, is Crazy Sis, who rants like a televangelist and is particularly one-note. Any sympathy the reader might have for her comes purely from her circumstances, not her personality. This may have been intentional, but I found it (and her) annoying.

The author’s choice to begin with an obvious stereotype and gradually build up character as the story evolves echoes the growth the characters find within themselves as they progress. One could argue that this is simply the way characters are created, but the artificiality of the opening vs. the depth of character at the end seems deliberate.

This is a visceral story; the core of the horror is in the character’s minds and in their unreliable (even to themselves) grasp on reality as the story progresses. Ghost Daddy is a master manipulator; being dead has given him a boost at sneaking into minds to work his mischief. Jude, initially a burnout, gets a serious wake-up call; his apathy disappears fast when his life’s at stake but he spends a great deal of the book trying to figure out who he is and what matters beyond simply staying alive. Georgia starts out as arm candy, but she turns out to be determined and absolutely devoted to Jude; she fights every bit as hard as he does to get them out of their haunted situation, and in the process finds her own core of personhood.

Two things I feel the need to mention:

  • Obviously, this book is published through traditional publishers and has gone through the  strict regimen of edits that such publication usually implies. The edition I read, however, contained a ton of spelling errors. On the plus side, they were obviously due to bad scans, not authorial inattention.
  • I was initially wary when I saw there were going to be dogs in the plot. In my experience, and especially with horror stories, dogs are used as plot devices either to prove how good the hero is, or to be tortured by the villain to show how evil he is. I could write a manifesto on that particular authorial trick. In this case, the handling of the two dogs, Angus and Bon (think our hero’s a rock fan?) was generally well done. The dogs themselves seemed to have dog personalities, and while they turned out to be quasi-magically able to help the hero, I loved the fact that the dogs themselves weren’t treated as magical beasts.

The horror in this novel is fundamentally supernatural, but over the course of the book one discovers that its roots are solidly grounded in the mundane. The mundane horrors are unsurprising, foreshadowed obviously (of course there’s more behind Florida’s suicide and the revenge plan than originally seen) and ultimately mediocre. Their presence is salvaged somewhat by the fact that the revelation does not affect the major focus on the supernatural horrors.  The literal demon of this story is merely a catalyst, opening the path for the characters’ inner demons to come out and play.


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4 Responses to [Review] Heart-Shaped Box

  1. Charles says:

    What a thorough, well considered review!

    I tend to agree that the progression from stereotype to fully realized character is a deliberate choice on the author’s part, particularly in Jude’s case. And sure, it mirrors his growth from a selfish, insensitive burnout into a person who has re-engaged with life and with his fellow humans. But I think it also serves a more mundane, practical storytelling purpose.

    Early in the story, we learn that Jude is unkind at best—cruel is a more honest word—to the people in his life. But as I recall (it’s been a year since I read it), we learn this in a vague sort of way. The examples of his unkindness aren’t as gut-wrenching, detailed, and memorable as a writer like Mr. Hill could have chosen to make them. The author doesn’t want us to lose all sympathy for his protagonist! By sketching Judas lightly at first & letting the stereotype do the work, he keeps our attention focused on the plot—which will keep pulling us forward through those early pages—and not on judging (and dismissing) the character.

    There are, of course, other tools for writing an antihero without losing the audience. But given where this character starts off, I’d say a smidgen of vagueness was probably a fine choice.

    Other miscellaneous comments: I “read” the audio version of this novel, so the pun “Judas Coyne” stood out a bit more starkly. And the refrain, “You ever go fishing on Lake Pontchartrain?” is burned into the auditory center of my brain.

    • anverie says:

      Thank you! (And you are my first official commenter on this blog, so thank you for that too!)

      I perceived Jude’s unkindness to be more apathetic than intentional. He’s never wholly unsympathetic, as you say, because there’s not enough of him at the beginning to have any real reaction to. Metaphorically, he evolves from ghost to human through the story, which is a nice thematic counterpoint to the increasing inhumanity of his attacker(s). I will concede, however, that it may not have been a conscious intention. (If I’ve learned anything about literary critique, it’s that half the time when you’re discussing those marvelous themes, the author is shaking his head and going “huh?”) Or it may have been. Never can tell.

      That said, I’m now pondering the evolution from deliberate cruelty to social engagement, which would be a significantly different progression than Jude’s redemption. And now I kind of want to find that story (or write it).

      • Charles says:

        Even with that story, there are a couple of different forms it could take. There’s deliberate cruelty for profit (an armed robber, a hit-man, a drug-dealing young gang member who feels that society has let him down and left him no other way to make a living). And there’s deliberate cruelty for the sheer fun of it.

        One transformation would obviously be harder to write believably than the other. Hannibal Lecter grows a heart of gold? Not sure I’d buy it. Scrooge learns to keep Christmas in his heart all the days of the year? Just might become a classic.

        If you do write that story, by the way, I hope to hear about it!

        • anverie says:

          How did I not think of Scrooge? He’s even got the ghosts! Bad English Major, not remembering her Dickens.

          The idea’s going in the idea box (Otherwise known as Evernote :) If it goes beyond idea, I’ll probably post about it here, though, so you should be in the loop!

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