For a story to succeed the writer has to grab the reader, either by empathy or interest, and lead them through the twists and turns of the tale. In the case of Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill had my interest from the start, but it took him longer to engage my empathy. Judas Coyne, the aging heavy-metal rocker who is the protagonist of this story, is not a character one instantly warms to. Jude collects gruesome artifacts of death and also has a habit of using and discarding a succession of young goth girl friends, girls whose true names are too much of a bother so he calls them by their states of origin. He sent his last girlfriend, Florida, away when she became too troublesome and now she's dead, but even before Florida's train had left the state, Jude had picked up her replacement, a girl he calls Georgia, at a strip club. Hey, life goes on.
But sooner or later, the dead catch up...
I was hooked, like Jude, by the ad on the internet. It read:
I will "sell" my stepfather's ghost to the highest bidder. . . .
The tangible bit is a dead man's suit and what Jude thinks he's buying from a stranger is a joke, another item for his collection of the macabre. But when Jude clicks the "Buy Now" button what he gets is a suit that comes in a black, heart-shaped box and genuine ghost. And the ghost and the package did not come from a stranger.
It took me a while to make it through Heart-Shaped Box because the horror in this novel is truly horrifying. Craddock McDermott, the vengeful ghost, is absolutely scary as hell. The battle between Jude, Georgia, and the dead man becomes an epic road trip and like all good horror, I honestly had no clue as to whether or not anyone would survive. But somewhere along this long dark road, Joe Hill shifted the story into overdrive and I found myself caring not just about the puzzle of the Heart-Shaped Box, but about Jude and Georgia and what had really happened to Florida.
Joe Hill certainly knows horror and he writes it well. But Joe writes the living even better than he does the dead. He makes words into people, people that you root for. And that's not horrible, that's wonderful. And so is Heart-Shaped Box.