The power of ghost stories is twofold: there’s the ghost itself, the spectre that does the haunting. And there’s what the ghost brings with it – the past, regrets, memories, and choices that can’t be undone. Joe Hill’s debut novel Heart Shaped Box is a ghost story that works on both levels, with its protagonists haunted not just by a fearsome revenant, but by their pasts as well.
Goth/metal musician Judas Coyne is retired from the rock scene, content to live on his farm with his two dogs and the occasional girlfriend. Coyne is a collector of weird and often macabre objects (his collection includes a snuff film), and when his assistant spots someone auctioning her stepfather’s ghost on Ebay, an intrigued Coyne makes the purchase. Soon a funeral suit arrives in a heart shaped box, and Coyne, his assistant, and his girlfriend Georgia find themselves fighting for their lives, and trying to find a way to banish the ghost. Adding to Coyne’s woes is that the ghost is actually the stepfather of a lover he once wronged (the lover’s sister sold Coyne the ghost in a bid for revenge).
Heart Shaped Box wisely gets the novelty of buying a ghost on Ebay out of the way quickly without lingering on the situation or playing it for laughs. Hill also doesn’t spend pages and pages going through the usual ghost story clichés of “is it really a ghost, maybe I’m nuts, why will no one believe me.” The haunting is immediate and obvious, and Coyne and his friends are aware all too soon of what they are up against – a ghost that isn’t content to moan and rattle chains, but can drive people to suicide or murder. What makes matters worse is that this ghost is not confined to a house or graveyard, but can pursue people across the country.
Hill has a solid narrative style, capable of evoking grim terror without losing empathy for his protagonists, all of whom are troubled souls. He does particularly well with the characters of Coyne’s assistant and his former lover Anna. Less successful is his characterization of girlfriend Georgia, who’s portrayed unsympathetically at first, but later becomes the heroine of the novel – the reader isn’t given the insight into Georgia to understand this development in her character. Likewise, Hill’s descriptions (particularly those of the ghost and the recurring image of a road at night) linger in the mind; only some repetitious descriptions of characters break the flow.
Heart Shaped Box has me anxious for Hill’s next book, a collection of short stories that should be published in the U.S. this fall (it’s already been published in the U.K. and I’ve heard good buzz about it). It’s quite a good debut, and proof that horror fiction, which had lost some of its luster for me, can still frighten.