Title: Heart-Shaped Box
Author: Joe Hill
Published: William Morrow (2007); an imprint of Harper Collins
Neil Gaiman described this book as the best debut horror novel since Clive Barker's The Damnation Game. I haven't gotten round to reading The Damnation Game yet, but considering the Barker novels I have read, I'd say that's very high praise. I can't recall where I first heard about Heart-Shaped Box, but the premise of a rock star falling victim to a curse struck me as intriguing. Not too long after placing it on my wish list, I scored a copy.
Judas Coyne (Jude for short) is a rock star from the same vein as Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, and other metal legends. It's the 21st century though and the height of Jude's notoriety has long since past. He still has a strong base of die-hard fans, and is still recognizable with his trademark beard and piercing eyes, but he's settled into a life of modest luxury and relative seclusion. He still clings to a few perks from his hey-days, however, like his sycophantic assistant, Danny, and his latest broken wing of a girlfriend, Georgia.
He still collects strange and rare objects too. Things like sketches by John Wayne Gacy, a trepanned skull, and even a snuff film. It's when his assistant lets him know there's an online auction for a ghost, replete with the dead man's suit, that Jude's macabre hobby finally bites him in the ass.
The novel could have turned into your standard haunted house tale. It certainly felt like it at the start, but it doesn't take long to learn that Joe Hill has other plans for this story. Like any good haunting story, it deals more with the characters being haunted than the actual haunting. The isolation and helplessness evoked by the dead man's ghost--a man with a direct connection to Jude's past--gradually turns into a road trip of sorts, a chase down a nightroad for salvation and confrontation with things that Jude has been hiding from himself for years.
It takes a while to get into Jude's head. I spent the first few chapters just thinking of him as a dime store novelty character, but as Hill reveals more about him and those around him, a very real and very tragic character comes into fruition. I'll go on a limb and guess Hill has more than a vicarious foothold on the music industry, because pieces of Jude's life felt genuine and not like a cliché of real-life rock stars.
The suspense was great and the pace taut through much of the novel. Jude and Georgia become very sympathetic, and I even came to sense the personalities of Jude's two dogs, which he discovers have a unique way of keeping him safe from harm in certain moments. The ghost, who is really the dead stepfather of a dead ex-girlfriend to Jude, becomes increasingly real the more that Jude uncovers as he tries to figure out how to be rid of it. At first, the ghost seems run-of-the-mill but becomes a very memorable villain with an intent so sinister, you wonder about the chances for a happy ending.
I'm not sure if I'd call it the best debut horror novel in decades--due in part to still needing to read some of the debut novels of now famous authors--but I was a very entertaining and very engrossing novel. Joe Hill put his best foot forward here.