Rock star Judas Coyne with a taste for the macabre decides to buy a ghost off the internet. It sounds gnarly, stupid and a waste of time – but he eventually wishes it was only that.
[Content warning and spoiler: assault, gore, violence, death, mental, physical and sexual abuse]
This novel follows a rock star, Judas Coyne (Jude), who loves collecting obscure and freakish objects. With his creepy collection that includes everything from a noose to a snuff film, nothing seems extreme to him. So when he becomes the highest bidder for a ghost on sale from a website, he merely thinks it’s a scam. But then, the ghost arrives in the form of a dead man’s suit, in a heart-shaped box. What then ensues is completely unexpected and reveals more of Jude’s past and relationships.
Heart-Shaped Box sounds like it has a bit of a goofy premise, and I was initially skeptical of it because combining technology with the supernatural has always been difficult to pull off, I find – it either comes across as cringe-worthy or trying too hard, unless it’s intentionally comedic.
Thankfully this book is neither, and Joe Hill manages to craft a spooky story that doesn’t just focus on the supernatural, but also the psyche of the characters. With the book title taken from a Nirvana song, Joe Hill uncovers different layers of hell that are unleashed from the Heart-Shaped Box. It was interesting how Jude, a very unlikeable and flawed character, goes on a journey showing that he’s much more nuanced than that – and at the end of the book, he doesn’t necessarily become this unrealistically sympathetic character but rather an average person with a hell lot of flaws – as Joe Hill writes,
He made melodies out of hate and perversion and pain, and they came to him, skipping to the music, hoping he would sing along.
Hill also utilizes a trope revolving around the essence of small towns – the places people often attempt to escape from due to the trauma, the past, the ‘narrow-mindedness’ they’ve endured, only to come back and face their unresolved predicaments in the present. This might also be reflected in his obsession with his death paraphernalia – no matter what, his darkness is manifested in his surroundings, and people are propelled to him the same way arbitrary objects are:
all these things had been drawn to him like iron filings to a magnet… he could no more help drawing them and holding on to them than a magnet could.
The way the supernatural scenes are written is also very well-done which makes it easy to visualize the eerie atmosphere, even for “simple” moments that don’t involve a lot of action. The supernatural is more than just a scary spectre, it captures and reveals the psychology along with the personal. Besides that, there is also a good balance of action, violence and gore that I did not expect, but was pleasantly surprised with. They are also quite realistic and compels the reader to contemplate on what they’d do in Jude’s situation. There are a few moments that are a bit predictable and involve a common trope in the horror genre that I don’t always care for, however the journey itself to get there makes the read very worth it.