Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Heart-Shaped Box

Heart-Shaped Box
by Joe Hill
Published by William Morrow
Published in 2007

Judas Coyne is a middle-aged rock star who lives with his twentysomething Goth girlfriend Georgia in an upstate New York farmhouse. Jude's music is informed by his interest in the occult and the macabre; when his PA helpfully mentions that some crazy lady is offering her stepfather's ghost for sale online, Jude buys it immediately.

Unbeknownst to him, the ghost is real. Unbeknownst to him, the crazy lady is the sister of his previous twentysomething girlfriend, who killed herself after he broke up with her. The living sister and the deceased stepfather are intent on revenge, and Judas Coyne has the most unpleasant time of his life ahead of him...

I'm going to do something that Joe Hill is probably tired of at this point. I can't discuss my reactions to this book without mentioning Joe Hill's father. Horror is a genre I do not read often. I like Peter Watts, but his science-fictional horror seems like a very different subgenre. And while I'm a fan of the short stories of the PseudoPod podcast, I generally won't seek out a big fat supernatural horror novel to relax with. But long ago, when I was a teenager, I read the occasional horror novel, and most of them were written by Hill's esteemed father. Joe Hill, Senior.

I grew up not far from Joe Hill, Sr's house. I never met the man, but he was without doubt the local celebrity, and I read a bunch of his big fat novels when I was in high school. As of now I haven't read any of his stuff in years. However, when I read Heart-Shaped Box, there was no question whose writing style it reminded me of. I suspect I would have thought 'This reminds me of old Joe Hill, Sr!' even if I hadn't known the family connection. That said, this is probably less due to Hill taking after his father and more due to the fact that I haven't read terribly much in this particular genre.

I'm going to admit that I can be a squeamish reader, and there are certain types of bodily injury that reading about can make me feel nauseated and dizzy. Heart-Shaped Box is a very bloody book, and by 'bloody' I do not simply mean violent. I mean this book is full of lacerations and puncture wounds and traumatic amputations, all of them graphically described, and by the final scenes I imagine the surviving characters are leaving trails of blood behind them wherever they go. This isn't meant to be negative criticism; it's more a note that this book hit me in some viscerally unpleasant ways that may have lessened my enjoyment of it; at the same time, though, the sheer bloodiness of it may have also made the story more immediate, more vivid, for me.

With all that said, Heart-Shaped Box absolutely did a masterful job keeping my interest.

About a quarter of the way in, I felt the story (and Judas Coyne's life) was probably about to reach its grim conclusion, and I wondered if I'd maybe unwittingly procured a collection of novellas rather than a single novel.

Then the story threw in a plot twist, and then another, and then another which I did not see coming, shamefully enough. By the time the tale comes around to its grisly, bloody conclusion, I was enthralled.

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