Okay, I admit it. I picked up Heart-Shaped Box, not particularly because I’d heard good things about it (though I had) or because the subject was intriguing (though it was), but because the author, Joe Hill, is Stephen King’s son. I’m sorry, Mr. Hill. When you’re an up-and-coming author, that has to be an incredibly annoying thing to hear. Think of it as additional publicity — and is there any such thing as bad publicity?
The main character is Jude, formerly Judas Coyne (get it?), a violent rock star along the lines of Ozzy Osbourne or Marilyn Manson, to whom vulnerable young Goth women flock. He’s not a bad man, but not a very good one, either, and he has a taste for the occult. When he’s given the opportunity to “buy a ghost” on an online auction site, he jumps at the chance. But sorry — no refunds, no exchanges; when it becomes clear that he actually has bought a ghost, and that the ghost is malevolent in the extreme, it seems at first that Jude and his girlfriend of the moment have no recourse. The recourse they create is, of course, the story.
The first part of the book, when Jude has his first few encounters with the ghost, is so scary that I thought I might have to abandon the book for my own peace of mind. I had to turn lights on so I could be sure, really sure I didn’t have company. The middle portion is frightening, but at a mid-level that allows the reader to breathe and to sleep at night. The end is gory, powerful, and a bit ambiguous — good ways to end a horror novel, if a little cliched. The things I enjoyed more than the arc of the story were the small touches: the way Jude turns out to be a more interesting, more compassionate person than we think at first; the way his girlfriend is no dumb bunny after all; the role the dogs play, and the rules of the game. Overall, I thought the book was very good, and (Mr. Hill, please forgive the comparison) better than several of Stephen King’s books. Joe Hill has another book out, 20th Century Ghosts, and I look forward to getting it. It’s rare I read a new horror author I enjoy so much.