March 01, 2007


Heart-Shaped Box. By Joe Hill. Morrow. $24.95.

      This is a great grim roller-coaster of a horror novel, full of cinematic touches (movie rights have already been sold) and rife with clever updates of the typical ghost story (imagine buying a vengeance-bent ghost on the Internet).

      It is, however, dead at the center – and despite the context, that is not a compliment. It has all the makings of a best-seller and, with a good screenplay and slam-bang direction, a successful movie. And it’s a fast and furious read. If that’s enough for you, it’s a buy. But if you believe there can be more to a book than grimness and gore, you’ll find Heart-Shaped Box lacking.

      What’s in the box of the title is the soul of the stepfather of a deeply depressed woman who was made even more depressed by her relationship with a heavy-metal rock star named Judas Coyne (that’s Judas as in “betrayer of Jesus” and Coyne as in “30 pieces of silver” – there’s nothing subtle here). Anna May McDermott became so depressed, in fact, that she committed suicide. So her older sister, Jessica Price, arranges an online auction of a man’s suit containing the soul of their stepfather, and arranges for Coyne to buy it to add to his collection of various perversities (snuff film, hangman’s noose, witch’s confession, cookbook for cannibals, that sort of thing).

      Okay, okay, this doesn’t hang together, but it’s no worse than the framework for many other horror novels, and Joe Hill writes with a lot more pizzazz than do many other genre writers (this is his first novel, but he has written a number of well-received short stories). So right after Judas makes his sure-to-be-ill-fated purchase, he gets a call from Jessica telling him just how she put one over on him, and why, and what’s going to happen now. “What” is something extremely unpleasant, since the stepfather’s ghost is one nasty piece of work, and comes complete with a silver razor on a gold chain that he used to use as a hypnotist. In short order, the ghost is causing a wide variety of expected and unexpected events: the smell of death all over the place, Judas’ dog barking, and manifestations everywhere from Judas’ car to his TV set.

      This is one of those books in which every single character is unpleasant, has a seamy past, or both. Judas’ assistant, Danny, for example: “Danny’s sister had OD’d on heroin. …His mother hanged herself six months later, and Danny had been the one who discovered her. Her body dangled from the single rafter in the pantry, her toes pointed downward, turning in small circles above a kicked-over footstool.” This is what passes for character development in Heart-Shaped Box.

      And that’s the problem. Characters don’t develop, even when Hill gets more deeply into the book and put Judas into the “confront your past” mode. This antihero is a miserable piece of work, and if even he does not deserve quite as much unpleasantness as Hill has in store for him, it’s hard to escape the feeling that he deserves some of it. There’s no depth to him and nothing particularly likable about him, despite Hill’s attempts to insert some redeeming qualities. In fact, there is almost no one in the book worth caring about – except, perhaps, the dead. By the end of the book, it’s hard not to wonder if Judas would have been better off as one of them.

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